The emergence of the English Defence League in 2009 led to renewed discussion of the extent and nature of Islamophobia in British society. George Kassimeris and Leonie Jackson have studied the discourse and ideology of the EDL based on the organisation’s public statements. They find that the EDL’s discourse, by constructing opposing and antithetical ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ subjects, does constitute racism, but of a form that has wide currency in the UK and that is certainly not confined to the far-right.
In the wake of the 7 January 2015 Paris attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote a letter to 1,000 UK imams thanking them for their work on counter-extremism but urging that there was more to do. Although it was acknowledged that the letter was written in good faith, the implication that extremism was primarily located in Muslim communities and that mosques were sites of radicalisation drew criticism. In his letter Pickles sought to reassure Muslims that were not being uniquely targeted by recognising that the ‘vitriol espoused by the thugs of the English Defence League’ (EDL) were just as antithetical to British values as the teachings of hate preachers.
Pickles’ conceptualisation of the EDL as thugs is not new. Since its emergence in 2009, the movement has been dismissed by opponents as merely another far-right racist/fascist outfit, an assertion that is apparently at odds with the ‘rational Islamophobia’ espoused by the movement’s leadership on its website, englishdefenceleague.org. The EDL has always claimed that it is ‘not racist, not violent, just no longer silent’, explaining racist chanting and violence at protests as the work of far-right elements intent on derailing the movement’s legitimate aims: to preserve free speech against encroaching ‘Islamic extremism’.
While the EDL’s claims should not be taken at face value, dismissing it in these terms fails to take into account crucial elements that construct EDL group identity as anti-racist. There are significant ideological differences between the EDL and the established far-right. For the British National Party (BNP), for example, Muslims represent merely a particular symptom of the wider problem of immigration and multiculturalism. The EDL, in contrast, has no issue with immigration itself and holds up the successful integration of non-Muslim ethnic minorities in Britain as emblematic of just how problematic Muslims are. The group has regularly stated its animosity towards the BNP in particular and the far-right in general. Leader Tommy Robinson explained his 2013 defection as a result of the excessive amount of time he spent keeping ‘goose stepping white pride morons’ away from demonstrations, and commitment to multicultural diversity is regularly expressed on the EDL’s website, through slogans such as ‘black and white unite’, and in the promotion of specialist sub-groups (including Jewish, Sikh, and LGBT divisions).
The group’s official ideological position is presented on the EDL News section of its website. Here the EDL’s rational Islamophobia can be discerned from the range of rhetorical strategies utilised that serve to racialise Muslims while simultaneously positioning writers within the boundaries of acceptable discourse. By representing Muslims as uniquely problematic within Britain, explaining this behaviour as the product of ‘Islamic ideology’ and demanding nothing less than total reform of the religion, EDL discourse constructs opposing and antithetical ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ subjects. It is in the formation of this binary opposition that the character of EDL writing on Muslims can be best understood as precisely what it claims not to be: racist discourse.
Racist discourse employs rhetorical strategies such as projection, denials and positive-self/negative-other representations to construct an in-group and an out-group, where the latter is represented as threatening the privileges and position of the former. Through such strategies the EDL projects a culturally racist motivation on to Muslims, claiming they are in the grip of a racist ideology of ‘Islamic supremacism’. It is this ideological understanding that allows the group to position mosques and halal meat as evidence of the ‘creeping Islamification’ of Britain and symbolic of Muslim desire to dominate. Denials allow the group to dismiss complaints of Islamophobia as Muslim paranoia, while positive-self and negative-other representations serve to present the successful integration of non-Muslims as an account of British tolerance and hospitality, simultaneously marking out Muslims as making unacceptable demands that exceed the cultural tolerance of the nation. In this ideological imaginary, the group’s preoccupation with Muslims is not Islamophobia, but a natural, rational reaction to their negative behaviour.
The cumulative effect of these discursive strategies is to represent Muslims as intrinsically and inescapably not-British, and to hold them collectively responsible for the worst of Britain’s social ills. In doing so EDL discourse works on one hand to preserve traditional ethno-cultural dominance and privilege, and on the other to contain challenges to this dominance, believed to stem primarily from Muslim communities.
But the common-sense understandings about Muslims that the EDL draws upon have wide currency in the UK, and are certainly not confined to the far-right. As Pickles’ letter demonstrates, the dominant understanding of Muslims through a prism of counterterrorism and the demand that British identity be promoted in order to quell Muslim violence has tacit state approval and relies on the very same discursive understandings that the EDL take up – that Muslims are inherently apart from British society and that they bear full responsibility for disaffection in their communities.
The EDL is not merely another manifestation of the far-right, but a single issue group that uses sophisticated racialised discourse to specifically target Muslims as inassimilable ‘others’ in Britain. Dismissing the EDL as racist not only serves to uphold the government’s claim that its counter-extremism programme targets all communities in Britain, but also makes government demands of Muslims appear reasonable in comparison to the EDL’s. The state benefits from a relationship of complicity with such groups. While the EDL rearticulates state discourses of problematic Muslims, the state in turn is able to distance itself from such narratives by marking the EDL out as irrational extremists. Ultimately, the conceptualisation of the EDL as racist thugs affords the government a level of plausible deniability for the exclusionary Islamophobic common-sense that its own policies and discourse have helped to promote.
A longer version of this post is available in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol.17 (1) February 2015, pp 171-188.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: hertzsprung (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)