Exactly who are the fascist bullies?

“Badgers… don’t give us a bad name. Badgers… please don’t give us a bad name.”

The middle-aged woman, dressed snout to claw in black and white, topped with homemade headgear and a megaphone, pleaded with the protesters.

“Badgers… come out of the road. Please don’t give us a bad name.”

On Saturday, opponents of the badger cull, who had massed in London to protest the animals’ impending slaughter, had strayed down Westminster’s Victoria Street, emerging at the Houses of Parliament to chance upon a 50-stong BNP protest against the death of Lee Rigby. As always, the BNP had been met by a counter demonstration of several hundred anti-fascists, many under the banner of Unite Against Fascism (UAF).

Some of the “badgers”, distinctive in their monochrome garb, had joined UAF ranks, blocking the road outside parliament, preventing cars from moving around the Palace of Westminster.

One last cry: “Don’t give us a bad name”. The “badgers” reluctantly moved on. For the anti-fascists it was too late – the damage had already been done.

By 4.30pm that afternoon, more than 30 of those opposing the BNP had been arrested under section 14 of the Public Order Act. By the end of the day the figure was nearer 60. At least one member of the BNP was given a bloodied nose, allegedly by one of the anti-fascist throng.

According to the UAF, the 58 arrests were “not because of violent clashes” but because “the police decided to extend by an hour the time allowed for the BNP protest, but asked anti-fascists to leave at 4pm.” The Anti-fascists were arrested “for refusing to leave”, they said. That may be so, but the tone of the protest was not one of peaceful opposition… it also doesn’t explain the bloodied and battered BNP member.

Having reported on several far-right demonstrations, this was not the first time I had witnessed aggression, criminal behaviour and a disregard for the rule of law by those claiming to walk against fascism.

Opposing the BNP, like opposing the EDL, is an essential political expression. The BNP is a fringe political party that campaigns on a plank of anti-immigration, playing on the fears of a white working class marooned from any type of upward social mobility.

The EDL are nothing more than a disparate group of drink-sodden thugs, politicised around a single anti-Muslim sentiment, and seemingly nostalgic for the days when you could fight at football matches.

Neither group has any genuine interest in Lee Rigby, other than using it as an excuse to wheel out clichéd admonishments towards “evil Muslims” and the threat of “creeping Sharia”.

However, the BNP had a legal right to march. A right, ironically, the anti-fascists tried to deny. The UAF had a similar right to demonstrate, but the tone was such that they looked close to becoming exactly what they were protesting against – vicious bullies.

Had the anti-fascist mob spent a minute looking at the BNP protest they would have seen 50 or so tired, haggard, middle-aged men barely worthy of a passing car horn let alone a huge counter demonstration. Some of the BNP struggled to string a sentence together. I asked one man waving a flag why he was there. “They’re killing our soldiers, aren’t they.” He could offer no more by way of reasoning.

What about the BNP threat? There were more journalists at the rally than ‘National Party’ supporters. There is no threat. Still, that didn’t stop those opposing Griffin’s party from acting like a violent mob – masked, angry and hysterical.

“Don’t give us a bad name,” shouted the badger woman. It’s a sentiment everyone who opposes fascism will hope supporters of the UAF start to heed.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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The twin threats of the EDL and ‘individualised jihad’

The brutal murder of Lee Rigby, a 25-year-old serving soldier in Woolwich on Wednesday, and the subsequent rally of 50 hooded men under the banner of the English Defence League (EDL) have highlighted the twin threats now facing the UK.

If Wednesday’s murder, as seems increasingly likely, transpires to be the first terror attack to scar the capital since 7/7, it marks a different type of horror than that which devastated the Tube and a bus eight years ago.

In the intervening years between 7/7 and the Woolwich attack the world has moved on; western operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – open wounds in the global conflict – have been scaled back, while western violence against extremism has spread outwards to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where militants and civilians alike suffer under Obama’s expanded drone programme.

“Individualised Jihad” has become the fear for security services, highlighted by a number of thwarted attacks on the UK, and, more recently, a successful attack on the Boston Marathon.

According to Dr Christina Hellmich, a terrorism expert from the University of Reading, this notion of “individualised Jihad” is a product of the demise of al-Qaeda.

“As an organised international movement, it is a spent force,” she told the Huffington Post UK. “A seemingly random murder is truly horrific – but it is hardly the activity of an institution which wields genuine international power.”

Hellmich said this variation on tactics has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, developed, she argued, as “a distraction against the fact that al-Qaeda was no longer an effective institution”.

Rather than calling for groups to unite and carry out attacks, the call is for individuals, wherever they are to take up arms against Western targets,” she said. This call for indiscriminate violence, Hellmich argued, is a new phenomenon, adopted around 2010 by Anwar Al-Awlaki (before his death) and his followers. As such, Hellmich placed Wednesday’s murder in a “similar family” to that of the Boston bombings rather than 7/7.

“The Woolwich attack most reminded me of the 2010 attack on Stephen Timms MP by Roshonara Choudhry,” Hellmich said.

Choudhry, it transpired, had been radicalised by online sermons and had no connections to existing radical groups. When asked about her motivation at her trial, the 21-year-old said that Timms had voted in favour of the Iraq War.

The targeting of soldiers rather than civilians marks a further evolution in extremist methodology, though as Raffaelle Pantucci points out in an article for the Royal United Services Institute, this is not the first time soldiers have been targeted. The academic cites Parviz Khan, who plotted to kidnap and behead a British soldier in Birmingham and Mohammed Merah, the French-Algerian who killed three soldiers before turning his gun on a Jewish school in Toulouse, as similar acts of terror, adding that there was no evidence that either Merah or Khan had been “tasked to do what they did” by an organisation or group.

The inevitability of a successful attack on the military is not lost on Joe Glenton, a former British soldier who served in Afghanistan and Africa, and a HuffPost UK blogger. “This type of attack has been planned at least twice and foiled before,” he told the HuffPost UK. “Targeting a soldier is a spectacular in one sense,” he said. “British troops will be very worried.”

The world has also altered politically and economically since 2007; Labour was in Downing Street, Bush was in the White House and the European Union was a bastion of economic and political solidarity. A year later and the world lay racked in turmoil as the worst financial crash since the Twenties blighted both Europe and America.

Since then, parties of the far right have enjoyed a surge in support as history’s all too familiar narrative – economic decline leading to an increase in political extremism – played out across countries and continents. Like the Tea Party in the US and Golden Dawn in Greece, Britain too suffered a resurgence in the political fringes, with the EDL gaining support on the streets and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) gaining traction at the ballot box.

Speaking to the HuffPost UK in March, MP Dianne Abbott said: “Whenever you have austerity and recession you have a rise in racism and fascism… you saw it in Germany in the 1930s and you’re seeing it across Europe now.”

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone offered a similar assessment: “If you look across Europe you will see an increase in parties of the right and of anti-immigrant sentiment.”

It is this increase in far-right activity, as highlighted by Wednesday’s EDL gathering in Woolwich, as well as an increase in passive support, that “must be nipped in the bud” said Glenton. “There is space in this country, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you can comfortably be anti-Muslim, and the EDL… have marched right in.

“There cannot be a blanket punishment for people who haven’t done anything just because these two guys [the alleged attackers] just happen to be Muslim.”

It’s a sentiment Hellmich echoes: “I see sporadic attacks ahead of us, rather than a wave… but these attacks have and will lead to an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment. It just adds fuel on the flame of those looking for a scapegoat.”

Another worry for Hellmich is seeing a similar response to Woolwich as in Boston, what she calls the “heavy militarisation of an entire city”.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, the city was placed in virtual lockdown as security services scoured the beleaguered city for the suspects.

“This was more threatening that the actual incident itself,” she said. “Thankfully we didn’t see that in the UK, but the incident was very different.”

Wednesday’s rally by the EDL was condemned by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) as the work of “fascist thugs trying to use the murder to whip up racism and direct hatred against all Muslims” and an attempt to start a “race riot”. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that support for the group, particularly on social networks, swelled following the murder.

But herein is the problem facing the UK should more horrors unfold; individualised attacks, which are the work of lone men or unconnected groups, are difficult to stop and when they do succeed they play into the hands of the far-right, spoiling for a fight with an al-Qaeda nemesis that barely exists.

Countering these twin threats is the task facing not only the UK government but every citizen repulsed by the brutal murder of a 25-year-old serving soldier on a south London street.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

What country are the EDL trying to save?

“This is my fucking country. This is my fucking country.”

Pinned up against a wall, both arms wrenched behind his back, the man in the football shirt would not be silenced. “This is my fucking country.”

I move closer to get a better view. He sees me: “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off…” Two policemen try to squeeze him further into the wall, subduing him against the bricks. It doesn’t work.

His face now entirely sculpted by anger, the detainee continues his child-like resistance: “Fuck off, this is my fucking country. It’s my country.”

As he is led to the police van, little visible about the man remains human. His mouth twisted and locked with fury – even his body, contorted out of shape by restraint and rage, seems to betray his animal origins.

His face lit red by sunburn, his clothes dirtied and frayed from the scuffle with the police… one last time before the door is closed: “This is my fucking country.”

Around 200 members of the English Defence League (EDL) journeyed to Walthamstow on Saturday to protest against the town’s Muslim community.

The marchers had dressed their protest with placards warning of “creeping Islamazation” and the “threat of Sharia”, their chants hitting the more base notes of the late Oriana Fallaci, interspersed with modified songs from terraces: “We’re the famous EDL”.

There were no Nazi salutes; there were no visible beer cans. As the group formed outside the station, the pack became recognisable as a football crowd – men travelling on a train to an “away-day” fixture, boozing on the journey, seeing old friends, before meeting the enemy on their own turf.

Once on the march and confronted by a rival protest organised by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and local residents, some EDL members offered less politicised viewpoints.

“Go and rape your fucking sister,” one man barked to an Asian protester stood on the other side of the police line.

“Shave your beard you dirty fucking cunt,” shouted another.

Non-Muslims – white and black – that showed any form of disapproval were met with chants of “you’re not English anymore”.

Violence erupted on the Forest Road, started by UAF demonstrators, who threw glass bottles into the crowd. One man started throwing flowerpots. The EDL pushed at the police line, but nothing was thrown back.

By the time the marchers finally reached their protest point, the UAF had gathered enough numbers to force the police to call off the event. Bottles hit a van draped in the English flag. UAF protesters shouted: “Without the police you’d be fucking dead.”

More missiles were thrown, now at the EDL leadership who were stood outside Walthamstow Magistrates’ Court, cut off from the main pack.

The man in the football shirt was detained. “It’s my fucking country”

…Except it isn’t his country.

His colour, his culture, his race may put him in the majority, but his views place him firmly in a minority – a minority even smaller than the three million Muslims in the UK that apparently pose such a direct threat to his “British way of life”.

There is a genuine debate to be had over multiculturalism, particularly in regards to Britain’s Islamic community and how to encourage integration without cultural dilution.

There is also a debate about freedom of speech and the right to political protest – a right the EDL was seemingly denied.

More grand still is the question of all religion and whether society can truly progress if shackled with bronze-age beliefs and superstitions.

However, marching 200 angry men up a High Street in one of London’s most ethnically diverse suburbs, while shouting, “fuck off Islam” and “who the fuck is Allah?” does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of political protest, or the points of multiculturalism in the UK or religion in the modern world.

Whatever country the EDL are trying to salvage, it isn’t one worth saving.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.