EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The English Defence League (EDL), the anti-Muslim 'street army' composed largely of football hooligans that burst onto the front pages of British newspapers in the last year as a result of its often violent protests, is to hold a rally in Amsterdam in October, EUobserver has learnt.
The EDL is to demonstrate in support of Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-immigrant firebrand, with a recently launched French Defence League and Dutch Defence League, modelled on the English group, to join them along with other anti-Islamic militants from across Europe.
Formed in 2009, the EDL has held over a dozen often rowdy marches and demonstrations in cities across Britain over the last year. Protests that attracted only a couple hundred militants at the end of last year are now bringing thousands out. On Saturday (28 August) a rally in Bradford, West Yorkshire, home to the second-largest community of south Asians in the UK, turned ugly when members clashed with police and pelted anti-racist activists with bricks, bottles and smoke bombs. Thirteen were arrested, according to media reports.
Anti-racist watchdogs call the EDL one of the most worrying developments on the far-right scene in the UK since the 1970s and the days of the National Front, an openly white supremacist and neo-Nazi political party. The group now appears to be meeting with some success in exporting its novel brand of nativism to the continent, a combination of anti-Muslim vitriol, aggressive street marches and attempts to rope in football hooligan gangs by holding rallies around the same time as matches.
Graeme Atkinson, European editor of Searchlight magazine, a UK anti-fascist journal, says that the group is "tapping into a widespread and growing Islamophobia in society," in a way that other far-right groups, weighed down with explicitly fascist iconography and discourse, have not been able to.
He warns against panic regarding the new group, but says authorities should not be blind to the growth of such movements, describing the new formation as "an utterly socially divisive, politically toxic ideology."
New kind of far-right outfit
Distinct from the traditional far right, the EDL, which originally grew out of the "football casual" subculture, claims to be multi-ethnic, to target "jihadism" rather than Muslims, and employs a rhetoric more in keeping with the fringes of neo-conservative anti-Islamism than the nostalgia for Nazism of other far-right formations.
The group's mission statement declares that anyone is welcome, so long as they are "integrated:" "We are non-racist/fascist and anyone is welcome if they want to live under English values and fully integrate into our way of life."
"English Defence League members recognise that this threat is one that must be stopped at all costs. Our Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and Hindu friends all have tales to tell with regard to Islamic Imperialism," the group's "Exposing the myths" page reads.
One of its leaders is Guramit Singh, a Sikh born in Britain, and it says it is, like Mr Wilders, strongly pro-Israel and maintains both Jewish and LGBT "divisions" while backing a ban on the building of mosques and seeking the burqa to be outlawed. Its LGBT wing was set up after the Dutchman visited the UK in March when he had been invited to show his short anti-Islam film, Fitna, in the House of Lords. At a demonstration in Bolton in March, a man held up a pink triangle alongside anti-Islam placards and banners. Its LGBT division has 107 members at the time of writing.
In what would normally be anathema to traditional, antisemitic far-right outfits, the group has taken to brandishing the Israeli flag at rallies and, according to the Jewish Chronicle, its Jewish division had signed up hundreds of members on its Facebook page until the page was recently deleted, though Jewish leaders in the UK actively discourage young people from joining, with the Board of Deputies of British Jews describing the organisation as "built on a foundation of Islamophobia and hatred which we reject entirely."
Links to BNP, Swedish Democrats
As with other formations in Europe that far-right monitoring organisations describe as "far-right-lite," notably Mr Wilders, Denmark's People's Party and the late Pim Fortuyn, some in the EDL try to distance themselves from, in the words of the group's website, the "Adolf-worhipping neanderthals."
But these same monitors say that while the EDL is not an outright "fascist" or neo-Nazi formation, links with the traditional far right remain, with many leaders being ex-members of the British National Party. Its leader, Tommy Robinson, is an ex-BNP activist. One of the organisation's main strategists is 45-year-old IT consultant Alan Lake, who has advised the far-right Swedish Democrats on tactics.
Meanwhile, at every demonstration but two in the last year, dozens have been arrested. The group's marches regularly involve anti-Muslim sloganeering and frequently descend into violence. At a rally in Dudley in July, a Hindu Temple was attacked as well as a number of shops, restaurants, cars and homes.
Figures for the size of the organisation and its supporters are hard to pin down and no figures have emerged for the new continental franchises. The group claims it has "thousands" of supporters and has spawned a Scottish Defence League and a Welsh Defence League, both of which have held rallies in their respective countries, as well as an Ulster Defence League. Police meanwhile reckoned that 1,500 to 2,000 EDL demonstrators marched in Newcastle upon Tyne in May this year, one of its bigger rallies.
Ground Zero 'Mosque'
The EDL has received endorsements from Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, two of the main agitators behind the right-wing movement opposed to a Muslim community centre being built two blocks away from the site of Al Qaeda's attacks on New York in 2001, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Geert Wilders, for his part, is scheduled to speak at a protest in Manhattan on 11 September this year by Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) against the building of the community centre.
Although Mr Wilders is not thought to have direct links with the EDL, SIOA is an affiliate organisation of Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE), which has marched alongside the English hooligan movement. SIOE itself was founded in 2007 by Anders Gravers, previously the leader of a tiny Danish party called Stop the Islamisation of Denmark (Stop Islamiseringen af Danmark), in reaction to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoon controversy. On 11 September 2007, the SIOE staged a demonstration in Brussels.
Other affiliate organisations have been created in 10 European countries including Denmark, Russia, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden and the United States of America. Mr Gravers is reportedly on friendly terms with Mr Wilders, is his "friend" on Facebook and will be speaking alongside him at the anti-Mosque rally in New York.
The demonstration in Amsterdam is due to take place on 30 October, according to the EDL website. Mr Wilders heads to court at the end of next month on charges of inciting racism. The case begins 5 October, with a verdict expected 2 November.
Joining them there will be members of the recently formed Dutch Defence League' and French Defence League, both modelled on the EDL. The latter draws its members from the ranks of far-right supporters of the Paris Saint Germain football club, known in France for long harbouring a far-right element among the club's supporters, although elsewhere on the continent, according to EDL spokesman Steve Simmons, not all the defence-league-linked groups have their origins in football hooliganism.
Paris Saint Germain supporters
The French Defence League, which employs both an anglophone version of its name and "Ligue Francaise de Defense," founded in May and more latterly takes the name Ligue 732, after a group of Paris Saint Germain supporters, that, according the outfit, "tries to unify all French Casuals, Ultras and French Fans to fight against Radical Islam."
The 732 figure references the year that the French king Charles the Hammer, the grandfather of Charlemagne, won a victory at the Battle of Tours halting Islamic expansion in western Europe.
Mr Simmons told EUobserver that militants from the "anti-Jihad movement" in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and "other European states" will join them in Amsterdam for the launch of what is termed the "European Defence League" or, alternately, the much cuddlier "European Friendship Initiative."
"I would also like to take this opportunity to announce a new demonstration that is to take the English Defence League global," Tommy Robinson, the pseudonym of the group's leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a former member of the BNP, wrote on the EDL website in a missive in July.
"You may be aware that the great man Geert Wilders is in court for race hate charges," he continued. "The EDL has been in contact with our European brothers and sisters and we have decided that on Saturday, 30 October the European Defence League will be demonstrating in Amsterdam in support of Geert. We hope that all of you will be able to join us for this, what promises to be a landmark demonstration for the future of the defence leagues."
"We feel that freedom of speech is being eroded and a lot of appeasing of radical muslims and Islam in general. Geert has the courage to take this on and we want to support him," the group's spokesman, Steve Simmons, told EUobserver.
In June this year, the EDL sent two representatives to Counter-Jihad 2010 - a conference in Zurich held by the International Civil Liberties Alliance, which does not focus on civil liberties at all but is instead an anti-Muslim movement. It was the fourth such pan-European conference in as many years.
The Zurich conference may have been where the idea for a European Defence League originated. According to an EDL report back from the meeting, which attracted "counter-Jihad" activists from Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, the UK and the US, the conference "built on the important work that had already been done as well as doing the groundwork for new initiatives and the inclusion of new organisations and activists in the work of the global counter jihad."
Mr Simmons for his part in a slight detour from the announcement of Mr Robinson, told EUobserver that the Amsterdam rally will see the launch of the "European Friendship Initiative," and that a "European Defence League" will be just part of this broader alliance of "Defence-League"-branded movements.
He said that talks are ongoing with in particular German, Dutch, Belgian and French groups ahead of the Amsterdam demonstration. Already, in April this year, the EDL took part in a small pro-Wilders rally of 100 people in Berlin outside the Dutch embassy, organised by the Burger Bewegung Pax Europa (Pax Europa Citizens' Movement).
He also explained why the EDL and allied groups are heading to the Netherlands: "We feel that freedom of speech is being eroded and there is a lot of appeasing of radical muslims and Islam in general. Geert has the courage to take this on and we want to support him."
He downplayed the group's rowdy reputation: "We want to turn it into a sort of celebration rather than a protest, with food, drink and entertainment."
He claimed that off-duty serving UK, Dutch and German soldiers which had joined "Armed Forces Unite," (which grew out of "Armed Forces Defence League," a Facebook group for EDL-supporting soldiers and sailors) have offered to help Dutch police to steward the event.
The city of Amsterdam government for its part is aware of the plans for a demonstration and is tracking developments, but will not discuss details of preparations due to "security considerations."
In Bradford over the weekend, in what was a massive police operation, some 1,600 officers from 13 forces took part.