Extreme right wing groups in Britain have so far failed to capitalise on popular revulsion at the killing of a soldier by presumed Islamists in South London earlier in the year. Lee Rigby was hacked to death in Woolwich in May 2013, with his alleged killers then staying around to explain their act to passers by before they were arrested.
The British National Party has been riven by splits, and the anti-Muslim/pro-military English Defence League has been seemingly stagnating. Both clearly hoped that the killing would give them a burst of renewed energy, and indeed a few days later the EDL did manage to turn out at least 1500 people on the streets of Newcastle.
However, the BNP’s proposed march from Woolwich to Lewisham Islamic centre was banned, and went ahead with a small turnout in Whitehall in central London – the area close to Parliament. The EDL were also restricted to Whitehall when they held a protest on May 27th. The EDL’s subsequent attempt to march on East London Mosque in Tower Hamlets on September 7th was also severely restricted, with the police preventing a crowd of between 500 and 700 EDL supporters getting anywhere near their target.
Unite Against Fascism (UAF), led by the Socialist Workers Party, has hailed all this as a victory for anti-fascist forces, as has the trade union backed Hope Not Hate campaign. But it has largely been heavy policing that has hampered the EDL and BNP’s street presence – albeit in some cases prompted by police fears of the potential for mass opposition (it was evident for instance that an incursion of the BNP into Lewisham could have sparked a riot).
The same laws that Hope Not Hate has urged the state to use to ban fascist demonstrations are also been deployed against militant anti-fascists. When the BNP marched in Whitehall on May 27th, 58 anti-fascists were arrested. Then in Tower Hamlets, 286 anti-fascists were detained. Their ‘crime’ was to have left the police authorised UAF protest site to try and get closer to the EDL march.
The UAF itself seems to be in some disarray, not helped by splits within the SWP (sometime UAF officer and SWP secretary Martin Smith has been at the centre of a dispute sparked by his sexual behaviour in relation to at least two young women in the party). If the EDL and BNP have failed to mobilise huge numbers it is notable that the numbers turned out by UAF have also been relatively small – indeed significantly smaller than the EDL in Newcastle. In Tower Hamlets the anti-fascist crowd was certainly larger than the EDL mobilisation, but when the new, militant Anti Fascist Network led a bloc of around 600 people out of Altab Ali Park towards the EDL route, it was evident by the smaller numbers remaining with the UAF organisers how few the latter had brought along.
Many of those who left the UAF demo to join the AFN bloc may have been motivated by deeper dissatisfaction with the politics of the UAF and its local affiliate, United East End, especially UEE’s alliance with the East London Mosque (ELM). The ELM is led by elements close to the Bangladeshi Jamaat e Islami, a right wing political party that perpetrated mass murder in the Bangladesh 1971 war (indeed one of the key campaigning issues of the Mosque and its affiliates is against the War Crimes Tribunal taking place right now in Bangladesh; a former head of the Mosque has been formally charged in Bangladesh).
The Mosque plays down its Jamaat connection, but the latter’s influence continues today in the form of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). The IFE was key to the election of George Galloway as Respect Party MP for Tower Hamlets in 2005, Respect’s subsequent local referendum to change the local government to a mayoral system, and the election of Lutfhur Rahman, who as elected mayor promotes the interests of the Mosque where possible.
Unite against Fascism, like the British State, treats the religious authorities of the East London Mosque as the proper, indeed the only, leaders of the ‘Muslim Community’. They have allowed them to set the agenda of the anti-fascist mobilisations entirely, enabling them to dominate in meetings and campaigning spaces, to the detriment of secular Muslims and other Bengalis, LGBT groups and feminists who have attempted to join the alliance against the EDL.
The IFE has used each anti EDL mobilisation to increase its profile and respectability. In September 2013, Tower Hamlets councillors raised a motion to recognise the IFE as a ‘progressive partner’ due to its stewarding of the anti EDL demo. Crucially, they present themselves exerting a steadying hand over the hotheaded ‘Muslim youth’ – in the 2011 London Riots the IFE boasted of its role in limiting disorder in the borough. The anti EDL mobilisations also of course provide an opportunity for the IFE to impose discipline on another group, Muslim women, who are advised to stay off the streets, for their own good of course. An IFE leader is vice chair of Unite against Fascism.
The Mosque’s venue, the London Muslim Centre, has hosted speakers who preach death to homosexuals, Jews, Hindus, Shias, Ahmadis apostates, and ‘kuffr’ in general. It now face intense scrutiny from the media (only the right wing media) so there’s fewer outrageous hate preachers, but it carries on its religious Right agenda on numerous local and global issues.
UAF have never expressed any opposition to Mosque statements or activities. Instead it has attacked as Islamophobic anyone who criticises any aspect of ELM policy. Though they haven’t changed their tune, their ability to smear people effectively has waned in the last 2 years for a number of reasons and they don’t seem to be able to maintain hegemony over local antifascism. At a UAF conference in 2011 one of their star allies, the academic and Islamophobia expert Robert Lambert, was exposed by London anarchists as a long term police spy. Subsequent media revelations have confirmed that Lambert infiltrated animal rights and environmentalist groups in the 1980s and later managed undercover agents in Reclaim the Streets and other 1990s movements.
The IFE might be heirs to a fascist movement, but the thousands of people who pray at the East London Mosque or use their facilities are not fascists. And though this Mosque has a lot of power within local communities, it and its constituents still remain highly vulnerable to demonization and racist attack by the likes of the EDL. Previous secular community defence initiatives, such as the Asian Youth Movements of the 1970s, were able to effectively defend Mosques against racist attacks without being defined by the politics of the Mosque. This is something we need to learn from today.
The Anti-Fascist Network and its affiliates such as South London Anti Fascists represent a welcome emergence of a new generation of militant anti-fascists. Whilst learning from the Antifa tradition of physical confrontation with the far right, they are also aware of the limits of this as the sole strategy. Other approaches they are developing include community outreach to those under attack.
The AFN doesn’t need to have a position about the East London Mosque or Islamic fundamentalism or the local scene in Tower Hamlets. Instead, it will just need to be very careful about alliances, venues, and battlegrounds, be scrupulous about not addressing people only as members of faith communities, and not be cowed by identity politics into staying silent if there’s something that must be said.
The future of the threat from the far right is unclear. With the BNP’s political prospects seemingly eclipsed by the rise of the anti-European/anti-immigration UK Independence Party and the EDL’s street actions tightly curtailed, there has to be a risk of small groups of racists carrying out terrorist actions. In June and July, there were attempted bomb attacks against mosques in Tipton, Wolverhampton and Walsall. The stabbing to death of an 82 year old Asian man in Birmingham has also been linked to these attacks.