Extremism in the UK

The current economic recession has put UK society under stress. Whether real or perceived, tensions between the different communities that make up modern Britain are being exploited by groups with extremist agendas, resulting in a rise in violent crime directed against Islam and an increase in political extremism more generally. The siren call of apparently quick, simple and efficient solutions to what are in reality fiendishly complex problems, such as immigration and housing policies, is one which can easily seduce populations that are feeling vulnerable.
The link between economic recession and a rise in political extremism is a worrying trend with a strong historical precedent. The Great Depression saw the rise of National Socialism in Weimar Germany, resulting in Adolf Hitler securing power for the Nazi party at a time of great economic turmoil around the world. At the same time in Britain, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) led by Sir Oswald Mosley garnered support when millions were out of work.

This image has been evoked by government minister John Denham who warned of ‘parallels’ between right-wing groups planning protests in Muslim neighbourhoods and Oswald Mosley’s incendiary marches of the 1930s.[1] These included the so-called Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when the BUF attempted to march through a Jewish area of the East End of London, leading to violent clashes.

Unemployment and the Far-Right

A 2005 study conducted by researchers from the University of Bonn, the Institute for the Study of Labour and the University of Zurich found that less affluent eastern areas of Germany recorded three times as many right-wing extremist crimes per inhabitant as the more affluent western regions.

While there is no evidence that someone who is unemployed is likely, per se, to drift toward violent radical movements, high levels of unemployment in society do appear to play a role. Professor Armin Falk, an economist at the Institute for the Study of Labour at the University of Bonn says: ‘When the economy is in trouble, latent racist attitudes begin to surface [and] right-wing extremist crimes flourish’.

The situation is more complex than right-wing extremist offences being mainly carried out by the unemployed, Professor Falk emphasises, but he does believe that a high unemployment rate increases people’s fears about their livelihood, even if they have jobs. ‘In this sort of climate the willingness to show the courage of one’s convictions and resist extremist tendencies is reduced. This acts as additional encouragement for the real offenders,’ he says.

This correlation between economic recession and the rise of extremist movements is a real cause for concern. A report published by the International Monetary Fund Executive Board on 10 July 2009 predicts that the UK’s economy is expected to contract by 4.2 per cent in 2009 before growth picks up gradually in 2010. The number of people unemployed is predicted to nearly double, hitting an estimated highest rate of 9.2 per cent in 2010. This correlation between extremist violence and economic recession is already being played out in available crime figures. In particular, far-right groups are beginning to pose a larger threat than was previously the case.

Just one example is a criminal racist campaign in Loughton, Essex, which has centred on the use of Murray Community Centre for prayer meetings by a leader of the local Muslim community (whose flat had been firebombed). Racial tensions in the area run high: the British National Party (BNP) has four councillors, and has campaigned against a mosque being built. Many commentators find it hard not to see a link between the two. Abdurahman Jafar, chair of the Muslim Safety Forum, which advises the police, said: ‘The campaign of terror has followed a campaign organised by the BNP whereby they delivered hate literature to locals citing the small Friday prayer sessions as evidence of how “the Islamification process is almost complete”’.

A Small Angry Minority

Right-wing groups will often seize on isolated, sometimes minor events, and blow them out of all proportion in order to push forward their cause. Take for example, one particular event that took place on 10 March 2009 and which has had a significant effect in dividing UK communities and polarising opinions. Troops from 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, marching in Luton to celebrate their homecoming from operations in Afghanistan, were heckled by between twelve and twenty people. Some held placards saying ‘Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra’, ‘Anglian Soldiers: cowards, killers, extremists’ and ‘British Government Terrorist Government’.

Ahle Sunnah Al-Jamah, an offshoot of Al-Muhajiroun, is believed to have been involved in the protest. But whichever group was responsible, they could muster just twenty supporters out of Luton’s Muslim population of 20,000. Luton-born Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain said the aim of the extremists had been publicity, and the real danger lies in the fact that the media handed it to them: ‘Their aim is to create discord and ferment division and this coverage helps them achieve their goals’.

The ripples caused by the handful of Islamist demonstrators in Luton are still being felt. A new group has emerged, called the English Defence League (EDL). EDL spokesman Tom Robinson says that in the wake of the March Islamist demonstration, he and others formed a group called United People of Luton. Using the social networking site Facebook, links were formed with a Birmingham based group called British Citizens Against Muslim Extremists, after which the EDL was formed. The Welsh Defence League and Casuals United are affiliated to the EDL banner too. And another new group called London Patriots is now seeking to raise its profile too over calls for the suspension of a BNP councillor in London.

Observers from anti-fascist groups such as Searchlight draw parallels between the EDL anger at Islamists and an earlier generation of football hooligans who supported Loyalist paramilitary groups against the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Nick Lowles of Searchlight said that while many of the hooligans involved were nationalists and racists, only a handful would associate themselves with fascist, far-right policies. ‘While it is not a fascist organisation, there are a handful of organised fascists in key positions. We are concerned that as the EDL grows it will attract more extremists and fascists.’

Clash and Conflict

United Against Fascism (UAF) is a left-wing organisation chaired by former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. ‘People should wake up to the fact the protests outside mosques are taking us back to the fascism of the 1930s when fascist thugs marched against Jews and their places of worship. These demonstrations should be condemned and banned on the grounds of blatant religious discrimination and a threat to public order.’

Weyman Bennett, former leader of the Anti-Nazi League and Socialist Workers Party Central Committee member, now joint secretary of UAF, added:

In the 1970s the National Front used to organise racist demonstrations against black people through ‘anti-mugging’ front groups [such as a march through south London which became known as the Battle of Lewisham]. Today the EDL and other racist and fascist organisations use the issue of ‘Islamic extremism’ in exactly the same way. Nobody should be taken in by the EDL’s pretence that these marches and rallies are not aimed at whipping up race hatred against Muslims and Asians. Their ‘protests’ are racist demos and we should not allow them to take place.

Arguably, left-wing extremists may well decide to use the UAF counter-demonstration as a cover for violence too as both sides’ opinions of each other harden and the prospect of conflict between them rises.

There is growing evidence that activists from the EDL have been engaged in far-right activities, such as with the BNP. One, Chris Renton, a BNP activist according to a leaked party membership list, is accused by others in the EDL of having hijacked the organisation for their agenda. A demonstration in Birmingham on 5 September organised by the EDL and described by a group spokesman as ‘a great day out’ resulted in up to ninety arrests as EDL supporters and police fought running street battles among terrified shoppers.[2]

The EDL website claims it is about ‘peacefully protesting against militant Islam’ and stated in relation to the Birmingham protest beforehand, ‘that anyone who wishes to cause trouble, or use this demonstration to voice any other issues other than Islamic Fundamentalists, Radical Islam and Sharia will be turned away. We are not a Fascist organisation, and urge anyone who know’s [sic] of anybody who is intent on causing trouble on the day to contact us.’

A similar group called Stop the Islamification of Europe (SIOE) organised demonstrations recently outside a mosque in Harrow, northwest London, where ten people were arrested, including the UK SIOE organiser, Stephen Gash. SIOE has chapters in different European countries, as well as links to an American organisation.

On EDL’s online chat forum there is the disclaimer: ‘Please note, any views posted on this board, and its contents are not necessarily the views of the English Defence League. The EDL will not tolerate any racist or Islamaphobic behaviour on this forum. We are against Islamic Extremists and all that they stand for, but do not want innocent Muslims being victimised or abused.’

The violent racist group Combat 18 has been largely absent from the headlines of late, but its slogans were chanted by youths involved in disturbances in Northern Ireland in June 2009, when Romanian families were forced to flee their homes. Far right groups have tried in the past to recruit from among former paramilitary loyalists in Northern Ireland. So far they appear to have had little success but, were this to change, the far right could become a more significant threat, with access to firearms and technical capabilities.

The Authorities Respond

The UK authorities are responding to the challenges of extremism. In recent months, police have successfully prosecuted right-wing extremists such as Neil Lewington, a forty-four year old from Reading. A fortunate intervention by police on an unrelated matter at Lowestoft station led to them finding a cache of components and material at his home for incendiary and explosive devices. Also in his possession was a handwritten booklet called the ‘Waffen SS UK Members Handbook’, as well as other far-right extremist materials. Lewington was given an indeterminate sentence and told he must serve a minimum of six years for possessing explosive substances with intent and a ten year jail sentence to run concurrently for engaging in conduct in preparation for acts of terrorism contrary to Section 5(1) of the Terrorism Act 2006.

Just this summer, police disrupted a network of suspected far-right extremists with access to 300 weapons and eighty bombs and who had connections in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, while another police investigation saw detectives seize maps and plans of mosques at the homes of far right supporters. The Metropolitan Police Service has no current intelligence on any specific attack being planned by a far right group in London but while political extremism violence and subversion is primarily a matter for the police, the Security Service is reviewing the situation.

Senior police officers from across the country have also met to share intelligence on the EDL, amid fears that a volatile mix of extreme right-wing activists, and counter-protests from radical left-wing groups and locals, could result in serious disorder, according to the Guardian.[3] An Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) spokesperson confirmed that this mix presents a particular policing challenge.

The police response to extremism is dealt with under the business area of the ACPO Terrorism and Allied Matters structure. A Domestic Extremism Co-ordinator, currently Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, oversees work done by three units that support frontline policing. First, there is the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, then the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, and third, the National Domestic Extremist Team. In addition, other police units such as those from the British Transport Police and the UK Football Policing Unit are also involved in policing extremism. It is thought that highly sophisticated surveillance and monitoring techniques are being employed, alongside technical and human sources, to check extremist activity.

Tacking Al-Qa’ida’s Influence

Home Office initiatives to tackle extremism include the announcement in August 2009 by Communities Secretary John Denham that local authorities will receive a £7.5 million funding boost to tackle Al-Qa’ida-influenced extremism. The new funding will give them greater flexibility to support a broader range of activities to improve the effectiveness of the Prevent programme, part of the government’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy.[4]

The extra funding backs new guidance, which reflects feedback from local authorities and from Muslim communities. The Prevent programme, which aims to challenge any potential support for, or involvement in, Al-Qa’ida-type violence, has grown in strength and support over the past year.

In recent weeks, ministers have made clear their determination to ensure that all sources of support for violent extremism are tackled consistently and effectively and further announcements will be made over the coming weeks.
Communities Secretary John Denham said:[5]

At the current time, the greatest terrorist threat remains that from Al-Qa’ida linked violent extremism. The Prevent programme is key to our long-term success in tackling this threat...Today’s additional funding, and new guidance, supports this work. At the same time, we also need to tackle other potential support for violent extremism, including that from racist and fascist groups, and over the coming weeks we will set out further proposals for doing so.

The funds will be allocated through an area-based grant, which will be distributed to ninety-four councils in 2010/11 across the counties, including Birmingham, Tower Hamlets and Bradford.
At a local level, Prevent work started in April 2007 and between then and 2011 over £58.5 million will have been given to local authorities to tackle violent extremism. In 2007/8, Haringey Council in north London supported the Young Muslim Leaders project, which saw the Police Amateur Boxing Club and Tottenham Hotspur FC working to provide training and leadership skills to young Muslims.

During an economic downturn, extremists from both ends of the political spectrum exploit the fears and frustrations of the moderate majority in the middle. In such a climate, mainstream politicians must appeal to the moderate majority to dispel misperceptions and make it equally apparent to both ends of the spectrum that extremist views and behaviour will not be tolerated. The sunshine of public debate, such as a forthcoming BBC Question Time programme, is an effective disinfectant against their rabid and intellectually incoherent views.

Grant McDonald
Freelance journalist

[1] Guardian, ‘Minister warns of 1930s-style fascists on Britain’s streets’, 11 September 2009.
[2] Guardian, ‘Police arrest 90 after clashes at rightwing rally’, 6 December 2006.
[3] Guardian, ‘English Defence League: chaotic alliance stirs up trouble on streets’, 12 September 2009.
[4] Department of Communities and Local Government, ‘Local authorities receive fresh cash injection to tackle extremism’, 28 August 2009. For insight into Prevent, see Yahya Birt, ‘Promoting Virulent Envy? Reconsidering the UK’s Terrorist Prevention Strategy’, RUSI Journal (Vol. 154, No. 4, August 2009), pp. 52-57.
[5] Ibid.

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