Twenty-First-Century Crusaders by Arun Kundnani

In September 2009, as the organisation was preparing for a major demonstration in Manchester the following month, the English Defence League (EDL) released a video on YouTube entitled, ‘English Defence League response to the lies of the UAF and some elements of the press’. (The UAF, Unite Against Fascism, is an anti-fascist group active in countering English Defence League demonstrations.) The video was filmed in a disused warehouse in Luton. Lined against one wall of a large empty room are around twenty men dressed in black, their faces concealed behind balaclavas. One reads a prepared statement, while another sets fire to a Nazi flag that has been hoisted in front of the men. The EDL spokesman says burning this flag will prove his organisation is not a far-Right group motivated by racism but simply opposes those he calls ‘Islamic extremists’. Addressing himself to these extremists, he announces: ‘We the English Defence League will contest your kind, as our forefathers did, relentlessly pursuing you in our quest to see all sharia banished from our great democratic country. Long live the free.’ Anyone can join the EDL if they share this stance, he says, even anti-extremist Muslims. Behind the men hang placards with the slogans, ‘Black and white, unite and fight’ and ‘We support Israel’s right to exist’. After the spectacle of the flag-burning, the camera zooms in on one section of EDL members, to demonstrate from the skin colour of their forearms that this gathering includes black men as well as white. In the description that accompanies the video on YouTube, a supporter has written: ‘How anyone can call this group far right fascist Nazis is beyond belief. Since when were Nazi groups multi-race?!? It’s not racist to oppose Islamic Extremism!’

The EDL had been in existence for just a few months when this video was released. It had been formed in response to a demonstration in Luton in March 2009, organised by Anjem Choudary, the leader of a small group that has had various names since its original incarnation, al-Muhajiroun, was disbanded in 2004. Choudary’s protest against a parade through Luton town centre of British troops recently returned from Afghanistan prompted a furious reaction from bystanders; a coalition of angry locals, members of football ‘firms’ and seasoned far-Right activists came together. Making good use of the online and offline networks that already linked football firms and the far Right across the country, and picking up a significant number of young people who seemed to relate, via Facebook and YouTube, to its style of politics, the EDL was soon organising demonstrations in several towns and cities across England, attracting up to 2,000 people. The slogans at these early demonstrations included: ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’, ‘Extremist Muslims go to hell’, ‘British voters say no to sharia law’, ‘LBC [Luton Borough Council] sell out cowards’, ‘Our troops are heroes’, ‘We demand a St George’s Day parade’, ‘Ban preachers of hate’, ‘NF [National Front] go to hell’ and, more prosaically, ‘We are sick of this shit’. Their demands included a ban on the building of mosques, a ban on the wearing of the burka, a ban on renaming Christmas and a new criminal offence of calling for the introduction of sharia law.

The EDL’s September 2009 video is striking for a number of reasons. Firstly, the image of a burning flag, accompanied by a line of balaclava-clad men, one of whom reads a prepared statement declaring the group’s commitment to fighting a mortal enemy, places the YouTube clip within a genre of video communiqués issued by various terrorist organisations since the 1970s. In its style of presentation, the EDL video imitates the very extremism it ostensibly opposes. And there is more unintended mimicry when one of the reporters who has been invited to the warehouse suggests the EDL’s appearance in balaclavas might seem intimidating. The EDL leader replies by saying: ‘It’s exactly the same as a burka.’

Secondly, in its graphic imagery of anti-Nazism, its reference to ‘forefathers’ who also fought against extremism (presumably in the second world war) and, most strikingly, in its appropriation of the socialist slogan, ‘Black and white, unite and fight’ (no longer against the bourgeoisie but against Muslim radicals), the video plunders anti-fascist imagery in an attempt to construct a popular front against ‘Islamic extremism’. Similarly, the reference to Israel’s right to exist aims at announcing a rejection of the anti-Semitism that was central to far-Right politics in the twentieth century, and at establishing a new alignment of forces to confront the Islamic extremist enemy. Hence the formation within the EDL of a ‘Jewish division’, a ‘gay division’ and the prominence of a Sikh activist, Guramit Singh, on EDL demonstrations. The EDL thus went to great lengths to present itself as an organisation that was not racist, and able to include within its ranks groups who are normally the targets of far-Right violence. The concept of ‘extremism’ was central to this positioning. By claiming to attack Muslim extremism rather than Muslims per se, the EDL hoped to dispel the suspicion that it was just another fringe, racist, far-Right group.

In another EDL video, released around the same time to promote its October 2009 demonstration in Manchester, another set of symbols is mobilised. To a pounding soundtrack, the video opens with pictures of sword-wielding crusaders, the red crosses on their shields and breasts mirroring the St George cross that forms the EDL logo. ‘The English lion has awoken,’ announces the video. ‘The time has come to defend our land from 1,400 years of Jihad that has finally washed up upon our shores.’ This is followed by a series of images of newspaper headlines, which are arranged to suggest that Britain is on its way to ‘Islamification’ within thirty years. ‘Do you want your children and grandchildren to grow up under Islamic rule in this your Christian homeland? Second class citizens in the place your forefathers fought and died for for you to live free.’ The viewer is told that ‘Islam religiously teaches Moslems to convert Nations into Islamic rule’, and that the government has been too politically correct to face up to this danger. Only a movement of English patriots taking to the streets can save the nation from sharia. The Manchester demonstration will be a ‘day of reckoning’.

Apart from its crusader imagery (which, given the anti-Semitic violence of the crusades, tends to undermine the EDL’s claim to be inclusive of Jews, let alone non-extremist Muslims), the power of this video lies in its sampling of newspaper headlines. There is little in the way of commentary or interpretation added to the headlines. Indeed, none is needed – the Express, Mail and Star newspapers articulate a narrative wholly consistent with the EDL’s own, with their daily diet of cartoon Muslim fanatics, secret sharia courts, forced Islamic conversions, no-go areas for non-Muslims, all tolerated by a politically correct, liberal, multicultural elite that has even abolished Christmas so as not to offend the enemy within.

Muscular liberals?

Most discussion of the EDL centres upon the question of whether it is just another right-wing extremist organisation, opportunistically using popular concern over Islamist radicalism to mask an old-fashioned racist and violent politics, or whether it represents, at least for some supporters, a legitimate attempt to oppose totalitarian Islamism. In a report for the liberal think-tank Demos, for example, Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler conclude that, though some EDL supporters use opposition to militant Islam as ‘a cover for more sinister or intolerant views’, many are genuine anti-extremists who carefully distinguish between moderate and extremist Muslims; therefore, mainstream politicians should ‘engage with those who are sincere democrats, and isolate those who are not’. Labour Party advisor Maurice Glasman seems to agree with this position, saying in an interview with Progress magazine in April 2011 that we should listen to supporters of the EDL.

There is ample evidence that the EDL’s opposition to Muslim extremism goes hand in hand with overt racism. Since its formation in 2009, there have been Nazi salutes, racist chanting and racial violence at EDL demonstrations. Activism for the EDL overlaps significantly with membership of the racist British National Party (BNP). Indeed, both of the EDL’s senior leaders, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and his cousin Kevin Carroll, are former members of the BNP and have been convicted of criminal violence. The ‘West Midlands Division’ of the EDL have taken photographs of themselves standing in front of Ulster Volunteer Force flags, carrying imitation firearms.

When EDL leaders claimed in 2009 that they had no problems with Muslims who rejected extremism, it was hardly reassuring. Two years later, they were making threats of violence against all Muslims. At a demonstration on 3 September 2011 through the largely Muslim area of Tower Hamlets, east London (a favourite location for far-Right mobilisation since the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in 1936), Yaxley-Lennon told the crowd:

We are here today to tell you, quite loud, quite clear, every single Muslim watching this video on YouTube: on 7/7, you got away with killing and maiming British citizens. You got away with it. You better understand that we have built a network from one end of this country to the other end. We will not tolerate it. And the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again.

Again, it is notable that the logic of Yaxley-Lennon’s statement is identical to that of his purported enemies. In the video message of Mohammed Siddique Khan, leader of the suicide bombers who carried out the 7/7 attacks on London’s transport system, he says: ‘Until we feel security, you will be our targets.’ Both Khan and Yaxley-Lennon use the same argument to justify violence against a whole population that is deemed responsible for the violence of some of its members.

By late 2011, the EDL’s alibi of anti-extremism had worn thin. On 16 November, it posted on its official Facebook page a message that differed little from the familiar script of the far Right:

In the last 66 years we as a nation, as a race have had our national identity stolen from us by politicians who have forced us to accept multiculturalism. They have and still are practicing cultural genocide on their own people, despite warnings that we will not accept it. They have forced us to accept the dilution of our heritage and history by the implementation of laws which will stop us from rising up, even if that’s just to voice an opinion. Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving us of our integrity as distinct peoples, or of our cultural values or ethnic identities. Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of the rights of the native or indigenous people. Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on us by legislative, administrative or other measures is cultural genocide. And unless we find our backbone and stand up to the ones who are committing crimes against the English people we shall continue to be subjected to slavery by a British elite aided by outside influences whose only intention is to destroy us from within and wipe us out as a race.

Any pretence of trying to organise a multi-ethnic opposition to Islamist extremism is here abandoned. Instead, the language of race is openly employed, post-war immigration is presented as cultural genocide, and a pro-multiculturalist elite is held responsible for destroying the English race. From the perspective of this post, there is little to separate the EDL from more traditional far-Right parties.

Whatever overlaps exist, it would be wrong to see the EDL as simply a mask for more familiar forms of far-Right, racist politics. Equally, it would be a mistake to think the EDL’s distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims, even when properly upheld, does not involve it in a politics of race. What both these positions ignore is the way racism itself has changed over the last twenty years, as a result of the end of the cold war and the launching of a global war on terror. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam became, as Samuel Huntington put it, the ‘ideal enemy’. ‘Radical Islam’ was more than just a new totalitarian threat that could, like communism, be invoked by Western governments and commentators to justify militarism and denials of civil liberties. Whereas communism was an ideological enemy emerging from within the traditions of the European Enlightenment, ‘Islamic extremism’ seemed to offer new cold warriors an enemy that was not only an ideological alternative to liberal capitalism but also a cultural rejection of Western modernity itself, combining the cold war fear of political extremism with the Orientalist fear of ‘fanaticism’.

From the perspective of the new cold warriors, traditional Muslims live hermetically sealed within their cultures, their lives entirely determined by them, whereas ‘we’ exist outside of any specific culture in the neutral space of universality, able to consume culture but not be consumed by it. Muslims enclosed in their culture can only ever produce a politics of communal backwardness; only those who have freed themselves from cultural determinism are able to join liberal civilisation. Political conflicts over foreign policy, discrimination, poverty, freedom of speech and religion, are thus no longer regarded as matters of power, interests and social structures but seen as symptoms of an inevitable, underlying conflict between Islam’s regressive cultural identity and Western liberal values. The only acceptable agency for Muslims is the rejection of their cultural practices in order to become ‘free like us’. As Gavan Titley and Alana Lentin note in their recent study of ‘crisis of multicult­uralism’ discourses in Europe, this culturalist framework assumes liberal values, such as gender equality, are ‘a property of a “community” of white European secularism; that those in but not of Europe are always already excluded from this state of being, and lack the capacities to define and organize their own liberations’. Using the language of culture in this way to define a ‘Muslim problem’ produces the same outcomes that more obviously racial discourses once achieved; cultural tropes, such as wearing a hijab, ‘can just as easily serve as racial signifiers as skin colour’. It also has the effect of projecting political and social conflicts, for example over the Iraq war or the claims of Western Muslims to equal citizenship, onto a cultural plane, where they can be dismissed more easily as the product of Islamic extremism.

This racialisation of ‘Muslimness’ is at the heart of the global war on terror. It is perfectly possible within this culturalist framework to erect a distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims, and thereby repudiate charges of a generalised prejudice against all Muslims: on this view, moderates are defined as those Muslims who have left behind their own traditional Islamic culture to adopt ‘our values’ of liberal reason. There are a variety of ways of phrasing this idea, from talk of needing to promote ‘moderate Islam’ over ‘extremist Islam’ to the more essentialist slogan: ‘There is no such thing as moderate Islam, only moderate Muslims’. But, however it is worded, this framework is always a trap for Muslims labelled moderate. Constantly scrutinised for evidence they really have freed themselves from the cultural baggage of their Islamic origins, the moderate Muslim cannot win: fully embracing liberal reason as an equal citizen is fine, so long as one’s reason does not lead to actual criticism of the state and society of which one is a part; at that point, the anxieties of the culturalist are stirred and accusations of infiltration or disloyalty follow. On the other hand, trying to fuse liberal and Islamic perspectives in some form of multicultural accommodation provokes accusations of duplicity and hidden agendas. This leaves one way out: to circumscribe one’s critical faculties so that ‘citizenship’ means the enthusiastic expression of loyalty to Western societies and states. Thus, the liberalism that culturalists demand allegiance to is not so much a set of Enlightenment principles but a ‘way of life’, a Burkean ‘inheritance’ of founding moral habits, to which all political differences must be constrained for the sake of preserving Western identity. An exaggerated dividing line between an ‘alien’ Muslim identity and this liberal ‘way of life’ serves as the basis for reifying populations into fixed, immutable ‘natural’ identities – the hallmarks of a process of racism. That the solution to the problem presented by this alien Muslim identity is always to be found in the use of coercion indicates that it has been made into a symbol of racial difference and that its bearers are not being accorded their own rationality and citizenship. Yet precisely because this framework differs from familiar patterns of racialisation associated with skin colour, it can associate itself with the defence of a liberal ‘way of life’ and appear ‘post-racial’. This culturalist discourse is central to the EDL’s programme and explains the paradox of an apparently far-Right organisation that is able to tentatively include black supporters and invoke ‘liberal ideals’, such as women’s rights, gay rights, ‘democratic accountability’ and ‘human rights’, in fighting against a totalitarian ‘political and social ideology’.

According to conventional wisdom, the mobilisation of far-Right groups in Europe has pressured centrist politicians into adopting more xenophobic positions, leading to far-Right ideas entering the mainstream. But the example of the EDL suggests the flow of ideology is more in the opposite direction. The EDL is a movement that takes the culturalist ideology of the official war on terror and gives it organisational form on the streets. It takes literally the government’s proposition that there is a war on Islamic extremism. From the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme, it absorbs the notion that the enemy in this war is not a few individuals engaged in violence but an ideology embedded in Muslim communities. Likewise, the notion that Muslims can be categorised as extremist or moderate, according to their allegiance to Western values, is taken from statements of government policy. And from the repeated ministerial speeches attacking an imagined multiculturalist orthodoxy (most recently David Cameron’s February 2011 speech in Munich), the EDL has taken its belief that state multiculturalism is holding back the fight against Muslim extremism. All it adds of its own is the thought that the politicians running the war are too soft and cowardly, still too caught up in multicultural platitudes, to fight it properly, particularly on the home front – the streets of England – where it will fill the gap with its own form of militancy. In its criticism of the state, the EDL uses the state’s own discourse against it. This suggests the most appropriate analogy for the EDL is not the BNP but the anti-communist John Birch Society and Minutemen militia of the 1950s and 1960s, who appropriated the US’s official cold war ideology and turned it against the government with the accusation that communist infiltration had weakened its willingness to take on the enemy, and out of this parasitical populism forged an often violent, far-Right movement. Just as the activists of the John Birch Society were convinced that fluoridation of water was a communist plot (a theory wonderfully mocked in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove), so the EDL bloggers warn of the ‘creeping sharia’ of halal food being offered on England’s high streets. Conspiracy theory is essential to the EDL ideology because only if the government can be presented as secretly in league or complicit with the enemy is there any need for the EDL to fight their own version of the war on terror.

From Jewish conspiracy theory to Islamic conspiracy theory

Post-war British fascism was never just a matter of hating minorities. It was also an ideology that sought to explain and give order to social dislocation and the depredations felt by the working class, through a rival narrative to that of the Left. To achieve this, it presented non-white immigration as an alien corruption of the purity of the nation; but it paid equal attention to the ruling class that had allowed this to happen, a betrayal which far-Right ideology explained in terms of a Jewish conspiracy theory. What appeared to be a British ruling class was, in fact, a mirage; real power lay with the secret Jewish cabal that pulled the strings of international finance, the media and the revolutionary Left, as supposedly revealed in The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the forged Tsarist document purporting to show how Jews manipulated world events to their advantage. While far-Right street activism involved racist violence against non-whites, far-Right ideology saw the real problem as lying elsewhere: the Jews and their hidden agenda of destroying national identity by fostering the immigration and mixing of other races. As David Edgar put it in his 1977 analysis of the politics of the National Front (NF), the far Right ‘blames the Jews for the blacks’. Even as popular racism against Asians and African-Caribbeans was the means by which young people were recruited, anti-Semitism remained a necessary ideological component, because only Jews could play the role of the secret source of economic and political power that had weakened and corrupted the nation. To this extent, British fascist parties such as the NF and the BNP were correctly described as Nazi in their ideology.

Since assuming the leadership of the BNP in 1999, Nick Griffin has sought to downplay this neo-Nazi legacy. Perhaps he still believes that Jews secretly control the media – as his 1997 pamphlet Who are the Mindbenders? argued. But publicly he has tried to re-model the party along the lines of more successful European counterparts such as the Front National in France, using the language of defending British cultural identity (rather than white racial identity) against a ruling elite that wants to destroy it through immigration, multiculturalism and appeasement of the Muslim enemy within. Instead of talk of a Jewish conspiracy, there is the idea that those in power are too ‘cosmopolitan’ to have the real interests of the British people at heart; and Islamic militancy is invoked to illustrate the dangers of immigration, capitalising on the Islamophobia of post-9/11 Britain. This message, of course, resonates effectively with many voters – it is, after all, no different from what has been shouted from a thousand newspaper columns since 9/11, and echoed, albeit in a more genteel form, by both Labour and Conservative ministers. Since 2001, the narrowing gap between the rhetoric of the BNP and mainstream political discourse has meant that, despite the BNP’s active membership remaining dominated by long-standing neo-Nazis and violent racists, it has been able to dramatically increase its electoral support in local council and European parliament elections. By June 2004, the BNP was able to secure 808,200 votes across the UK in elections to the European parliament; by 2009, the BNP had won two seats in Brussels.

The significance of this can best be grasped if we recall the BNP’s first election success, in 1993, when Derek Beackon won a seat on Tower Hamlets council in east London with the slogan ‘rights for whites’. At the time, his election was considered shocking enough to prompt a mass campaign that united mainstream politics against him, removing him from office the following year. A key part of that campaign was the argument that voting for the Labour Party rather than the BNP was a better way of addressing issues of concern, such as housing. Since 2003, the BNP has had at least ten councillors in office at any one time, with the real possibility of winning control of a borough or city council, such as Burnley’s. But the response of the political mainstream over the last decade has been different from the early 1990s. The Labour Party, having ‘modernised’ from 1994, has lost credibility as a vehicle for addressing working-class political concerns; activists on doorsteps who want to dissuade would-be BNP voters are thus unable to offer a positive alternative. Moreover, the current message from mainstream politics and popular newspapers is not that the BNP is fundamentally wrong but that it is exploiting ‘legitimate grievances’ that are better addressed by responsible politicians within the mainstream. If the best mainstream argument against the BNP is that it is irresponsible, then it is hardly surprising it attracts substantial support among the large numbers of people who see mainstream politics itself as devoid of moral responsibility. The weakness of this strategy was illustrated when Labour minister Jack Straw debated Nick Griffin on the BBC’s Question Time in 2009. While Griffin himself was discredited, Straw was unable to attack the BNP’s policies on multiculturalism and immigration. As Gary Younge noted in the Guardian, ‘since New Labour’s politics enabled the BNP, it is in no position to disable it’. In the last few years, the BNP’s organising capacity has been severely reduced, firstly by the leaking of its membership list and, secondly, by the financial burden of defending itself against a legal challenge to its racist membership policy. But these tactics targeted the messenger not the message, allowing others to pick up from where the BNP had left off.

As it turned out, the EDL was well placed to do so. It has not organised as a conventional political party and has no formal members, so it is less vulnerable to the tactics that have been partially effective against the BNP. More significantly, the EDL has been able to better tailor its ideology to current circumstances, because it owes its entire outlook to the war on terror. The BNP’s opportunistic exploitation of Islamophobia since 9/11 carried it to a level of electoral support unimaginable in the 1990s. But, by virtue of its core membership, the party remains tethered to the neo-Nazi tradition and so, unlike the EDL, cannot fully realise the potential of the post-9/11 context.

Given anti-Semitism’s centrality to the European far Right of the twentieth century, the EDL’s new relationship to right-wing Zionism is the most striking indicator of its break with conventional fascist ideology. Along with counterparts in other parts of Europe, the EDL not only eschews anti-Semitism but actively embraces militant Zionists in the defence of the West against its Islamist enemy. Historically, the far Right in Europe tended to prefer the Palestinian cause, for purely anti-Semitic reasons. But the new culturalist politics of the war on terror has reversed this position, with Israel seen as a Western bridgehead within enemy territory.

In Belgium, the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang (VB) party – formed by members of the neo-fascist Vlaams Blok after it received a 2004 ban for promoting racism – has built links with the Israeli Right and succeeded in gaining the support of a minority of Antwerp’s Jewish voters. Yet the VB is rooted in anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism: in 1988, the party’s leader, Filip Dewinter, paid his respects to the Nazi soldiers buried in Belgium and, in 2001, he opened a speech with an oath used by the SS. But now Islamophobia has substituted for anti-Semitism and Dewinter visits Israel to meet right-wing members of the Knesset. In 2005, he told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz

Islam is now the No. 1 enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world. After communism, the greatest threat to the West is radical fundamentalist Islam. There are already 25–30 million Muslims on Europe’s soil and this becomes a threat. It’s a real Trojan horse. Thus, I think that an alliance is needed between Western Europe and the State of Israel. I think we in Western Europe are too critical of Israel and we should support Israel in its struggle to survive. I think we should support Israel more than we do because its struggle is also very important for us.

In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn pioneered a new form of far-Right populism founded on defending liberal values against ‘Islamification’, his own open homosexuality indicating the distinctiveness of this politics from the traditional far Right (an innovation the EDL’s ‘LGBT division’ later drew on). Fortuyn’s party became the largest on Rotterdam’s council before he was murdered by an animal rights activist in 2002. Geert Wilders, the leader of the third largest political party in Holland, has continued this new form of politics with the Islamophobic video Fitna and his call for a ban on the Qur’an. Wilders is another regular visitor to Israel, where he argues for annexing the West Bank and creating a Palestinian state in Jordan. ‘Without Judea and Samaria, Israel cannot protect Jerusalem,’ he says. When Wilders visited London in March 2010, the EDL organised a demonstration to welcome him. A group also travelled to Amsterdam to meet him there but were chased away by Dutch anti-fascists.

Like Wilders and Dewinter, the EDL has highlighted its Jewish support as a badge of ‘post-racialism’. But the EDL’s Jewish division is of more than just symbolic value. Its leader Roberta Moore connected the EDL to far-Right Jewish groups in the US, such as the Jewish Task Force, led by Victor Vancier (national chairman in the 1970s of the terrorist Jewish Defence League), and gave it the credibility to forge links with Pamela Geller, the New York-based Islamophobic blogger, and her Stop the Islamization of America group. In September 2010, EDL leaders attended protests in lower Manhattan against the Park 51 community centre, named the ‘Ground Zero victory mosque’ by Geller; construction of the centre was abandoned, largely as a result of her campaign. A month after this visit, Rabbi Nachum Shifren, a Tea Party activist who believes that ‘the Muslim onslaught is at the gates’, came to London to speak at an EDL rally, where he announced: ‘We will never surrender to the sword of Islam’. Around the same time, the EDL was noticed by US neoconservatives. The Hudson Institute, part of the Israel lobby in Washington, DC, published an article describing ‘members of the EDL holding their flags with pride, putting their arms around men and women of every age and ethnicity’, adding ‘it seemed that the nationalism of the EDL was a cousin of American nationalism, in which everyone can be proud of his nation, and of being a citizen, under the flag of the nation.’

To US Islamophobes, Britain had long appeared the most ‘Islamised’ nation in an ‘Islamising’ continent. For them, London had become ‘Londonistan’, a city given over to Islamic domination and a warning sign of what would happen in the US if ‘creeping sharia’ was not halted. The protests of the EDL seemed a welcome revolt against Islam by the native English and a confirmation that the kind of politics Geller was advocating could bring thousands to the streets. From 2007, activists had begun to talk about a trans-Atlantic ‘counter-jihad’ movement, involving various far-Right groupings across Europe, and held together by US-based blogs such as Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs (named after Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel), Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch (a subsidiary of the David Horowitz Freedom Center) and Ned May’s Gates of Vienna (referencing the seventeenth-century Ottoman defeat). Geller and Spencer had attended a 2007 ‘Counter Jihad’ conference in Brussels, along with Vlaams Belang leaders and Bat Ye’or, author of the Eurabia conspiracy theory (of which more below). By the end of 2010, the kinds of campaigns against mosque construction that had earlier erupted across Europe were in full swing across the US, despite its constitutional principle of religious freedom; the American Civil Liberties Union reported that forty mosques across the US were facing organised opposition. Meanwhile, twenty-three US states introduced legislation to ban sharia from their courtrooms, on the presumption that America was on the verge of being ‘Islamised’.

In the US, promoters of a populist, anti-Islamic message are well-funded. The Los Angeles-based millionaire couple Aubrey and Joyce Chernick, for example, have funded Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch website with close to a million dollars (they also donate significant funds to pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington). Geller and Spencer are regularly invited onto the Fox News network as ‘experts’ on Islam and have been backed by senior Republicans Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Moreover, Spencer has been invited to brief the US military, the FBI and intelligence agencies. This well-resourced US Islamophobia network has been a significant source of ideas, contacts and inspiration for the EDL.

Yet tensions remain. When Roberta Moore resigned from the EDL in June 2011, apparently concerned the organisation was not sufficiently distancing itself from neo‐Nazi elements within the movement, Geller and Spencer asked whether the EDL had really broken with the traditional far Right. Tommy Robinson correctly assessed that support for Israel was the litmus test of these new trans-Atlantic alliances and sent a statement to Geller and Spencer hoping to reassure them of the EDL’s Zionism: ‘In the first public speech I ever gave, I wore the Star of David … The reason for this is because Israel is a shining star of democracy. If Israel falls, we all fall. This is what our movement has been built on for two years. … We reject all anti-Semitism. The EDL stands where it always has stood, which is side-by-side with Israel.’

Irrespective of these organisational tensions, the trans-Atlantic networks of the ‘counter-jihad’ movement have facilitated the circulation of a series of new conspiracy theories to fill the gap left by the Jewish conspiracy theory of the traditional far Right, and serving the same purpose of explaining the purported complicity of Western governments with their enemies. One such theory is the Eurabia thesis, outlined in Bat Ye’or’s 2005 book Eurabia: the Euro-Arab axis. Her claim is that the Euro-Arab Dialogue – a programme initiated by the European Community’s political establishment following the 1973 oil crisis, to forge closer links with Arab nations – was actually a secret plot by European politicians and civil servants to facilitate Muslim immigration, subjugate Europe, and transform the continent into an Arab colony, Eurabia. Like the Jewish conspiracy theory of the Protocols, no evidence is offered. Nevertheless, through the mainstream conservative writing of Oriana Fallaci, Niall Ferguson and Melanie Phillips, the term ‘Eurabia’ has been associated with an image of Europe as cowardly and weak in the face of Islamic intimidation, allowing itself to be ‘colonised’ by an increasing Muslim presence.

A second conspiracy theory has centred upon the ‘infiltration’ of radical Islam in the US government, including with President Obama himself. Spencer has stated that

Barack Obama was a Muslim as a child. He has never explained when or whether he left Islam at all. He identifies himself as a Christian now but it is, I think, perhaps salient to note that a Muslim can identify himself as Christian because Jesus Christ is a Muslim prophet in the Qur’an … And so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some individual, or possibly Barack Obama, could be a Muslim and identify himself as Christian without even meaning to say that he is a member of the classic Christian tradition at all. … But certainly his public policies and his behaviour are consistent with his being a committed and convinced Muslim.

Pamela Geller believes that Obama is ‘the jihad candidate’ who is ‘using all branches of government to enforce the Shariah’. His is the ‘first Muslim presidency, just eight years after 9/11. … Everything this president has done so far has helped foster America’s submission to Islam.’ Like the anti-communist paranoids of the cold war, she believes the US government itself is secretly controlled by Muslim extremists: ‘The enemy has infiltrated every department, every division of the federal government and the Obama administration, including the White House. The State Department [is] essentially being run by Islamic supremacists.’ For Florida congressman Allen West, ‘there is an infiltration of the Sharia practice into all of our operating systems in our country as well as across Western civilization’. According to a survey for Time magazine in August 2010, around a quarter of Americans think Obama is a crypto-Muslim.

For the new conspiracy theorists, Islamist terrorism is just the visible tip of a hidden jihad iceberg. Alongside the use of violence is the strategy of ‘stealth jihad’ which aims at the infiltration of national institutions and the assertion of Muslim demands through the legal system. Muslims advocating for their civil rights or seeking to win political office are therefore to be regarded not as fellow citizens but as agents of a secret plan to impose totalitarian government on the world. Non-Muslims who stand with Muslims in challenging discrimination are ‘dhimmis’, the twenty-first century equivalent of the cold war’s ‘fellow travellers’, who have already internalised the status of second-class citizenship within an Islamo-fascist state. The provision of halal food, sharia-compliant finance or prayer breaks in workplaces is ‘creeping sharia’, the first steps towards a society ruled by Islam. (Pamela Geller has called for a boycott of Campbell’s soup because halal versions of their products are available.) Since the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya supposedly sanctions systematic lying to non-Muslims to help advance sharia government, Muslims who say they interpret Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance are not to be trusted. Just as the early cold war produced the ‘reds under the bed’ fantasy of a vast network of communist agents operating in the US, today there is the notion that almost every American and European mosque is exploiting religious freedom to promote Islamic sedition. According to congressman Peter King, the chair of the House homeland security committee, who in 2011 held hearings on the ‘radicalization’ of American Muslims, 80 per cent of American mosques are controlled by extremists. All this adds up to what we might call, with Senator Joseph McCarthy, ‘a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man’.

In a sense, this is a return to what Richard Hofstadter diagnosed in 1963 as ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, now with an equal audience in Europe. But there are also significant differences between today’s Islamic conspiracy theories and the right-wing, conspiratorial conception of power of the early cold war. Whereas the anti-communist paranoids saw their enemy as hugely powerful, able to direct world history through secret control of the media and economy, or even through techniques of brainwashing, the new conspiracy theorists do not ascribe to Islam any special abilities or intelligence; on the contrary, Muslims are seen as mired in a regressive, seventh-century culture. Rather, whatever power Muslims have has been granted to them by the West’s own leaders, academics and journalists, whose lack of pride in Western culture has led to relativism and appeasement. Hence, the focus is as much on the thorough corruption of Western elites as on radical Islam itself. As Ned May wrote on his Gates of Vienna blog in September 2006: ‘the Jihad is just a symptom … the enemy lies within. This war is a civil war within the West, between traditional Western culture and the forces of politically correct multicultural Marxism that have bedevilled it for the last hundred years.’

Terrorism in Oslo

On 22 July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb outside Norwegian government buildings before disguising himself as a police officer and opening fire on scores of teenagers attending a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utøya. Seventy-seven people were killed. In his 1,500-page manifesto, 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence, published online on the day of the attacks, Breivik describes his ideology. He writes in English, presumably to attract British and American readers. Much of the document consists of advice to fellow far-Right terrorists on weapons, bomb-making, body armour, physical training, rituals to maintain ideological commitment, what music to listen to, political marketing, and the potential use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He claims to be a member of a secret group of new crusaders founded in London in 2002 by representatives from eight European countries, ‘for the purpose of serving the interests of the free indigenous peoples of Europe and to fight against the ongoing European Jihad’. One section of 2083 describes the ranks, organisational structure, initiation rites, uniforms, awards and medals to be used by this secret ‘Knights Templar’ group. These parts of the manifesto – and a section in which he interviews himself, narcissistically listing his favourite music, clothes and drinks – appear to be its only original content. The bulk of the document constitutes a compilation of texts copied from Breivik’s favourite websites. Its opening chapters, a long section on ‘cultural Marxism’ and political correctness, are plagiarised from Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology, a bookpublished online in 2004 by the Free Congress Foundation – a Washington-based lobby group founded by Paul Weyrich, one of the most influential activists of the US Christian Right. In this section, Breivik has replaced references to ‘America’ in the original text with ‘Western Europe’. The writers Breivik cites most often are Robert Spencer, Ba’et Yor and ‘Fjordman’, who blogs for Gates of Vienna and Jihad Watch.

The key argument of the manifesto is that Europe has been taken over by a pro-multiculturalist elite, which is imposing its ideology of ‘cultural Marxism’ in order to undermine native European culture. Endorsing the Eurabia thesis, Breivik sees multiculturalism as facilitating the ‘Islamic colonisation of Europe’ through ‘demographic warfare’. And the clock is ticking: ‘We have only a few decades to consolidate a sufficient level of resistance before our major cities are completely demographically overwhelmed by Muslims.’ Through its control of the media, universities and mainstream political parties, the multiculturalist elite has prevented the possibility of democratic opposition, claims Breivik. While individual Muslims do not necessarily follow its precepts, Islam is ‘a political ideology that exists in a fundamental and permanent state of war with non-Islamic civilisations, cultures, and individuals’, which means the more Muslims there are in Europe, the more Islam’s inherent violence manifests itself. If this trend is not reversed, he predicts, a European civil war will break out between nationalists and Muslims allied with multiculturalists. Finally, Breivik justifies his violence by arguing for ‘a pre-emptive war, waged in order to repel, defeat or weaken an ongoing Islamic invasion/colonisation, to gain a strategic advantage in an unavoidable war before that threat materialises’.

The formal structure of the manifesto’s argument corresponds to the conventional neo-Nazi doctrine of ‘race war’, in which whites rise up before it is too late against governments that have tried to dilute their racial purity. The standard strategy of neo-Nazism has been to actively encourage such a war by launching attacks on minorities, in order to provoke a violent reaction that would awaken the white majorities to the necessity of racial struggle, sending thousands of recruits into the ranks of the nationalist movement. This was what David Copeland was hoping for when, in 1999, he planted nail bombs in London’s black and Asian neighbourhoods and in a gay bar, killing three people and injuring over a hundred. There are elements of this provocation strategy in Breivik’s manifesto too: he argues for attacks on Muslim cultural events to incite ‘violent riots and various forms of Jihadi activities’; this, he hopes, will in turn ‘radicalise more Europeans’ and spiral until more Europeans ‘come to learn the “true face of Islam” and multiculturalism’. But he singles out the multiculturalist elites as the primary targets for violence, hoping that terrorism will ‘penetrate the strict censorship regime’ and damage the multicultural ideology. ‘In order to wake up the masses, the only rational approach will be to make sure the current system implodes.’ Hence the mass murder at Utøya of the next generation of Labour Party leaders.

While Breivik’s narrative formally resembles the ‘race war’ of neo-Nazism, he reframes this doctrine by substituting culture for race, Muslims for blacks, and multiculturalists for Jews. He explicitly rejects the ‘race war’ concept and calls instead for a ‘cultural war’ in which ‘absolutely everyone will have the opportunity to show their loyalty to our cause, including nationalist European Jews, non-European Christians or Hindu/Buddhist Asians’. Like the EDL, he uses a culturalist framework to forge new alliances. Yet he also speaks of his ‘opposition to race-mixing’ and wants ‘to prevent the extinction of the Nordic genotypes’. Of Jews, he writes:

So, are the current Jews in Europe and US disloyal? The multiculturalist (nation-wrecking) Jews ARE while the conservative Jews ARE NOT. Aprox. 75% of European/US Jews support multiculturalism while aprox. 50% of Israeli Jews does the same. This shows very clearly that we must embrace the remaining loyal Jews as brothers.

There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800 000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.

Casting Jews as both potential allies (if they join in fighting Islam) and a demographic threat (if there are too many), Breivik is simultaneously anti-Semitic and pro-Zionist. The picture that emerges is far from consistent, with old far-Right ideas of race war being reworked with newer culturalist notions.

The overwhelming majority of Breivik’s source material comes from websites of the US far Right, particularly the ‘counter-jihad’ blogs, which have presented Europe as betrayed by multiculturalism and on the verge of cultural extinction as a result of Muslim immigration. Support for his strategy of violence and provocation cannot be sourced explicitly to these blogs. But ‘A European Declaration of Independence’, a 2007 blog post by Fjordman, which Breivik reproduces and whose title he borrows, does come close to issuing a call to arms. He writes: ‘We are being subject to a foreign invasion, and aiding and abetting a foreign invasion in any way constitutes treason. If non-Europeans have the right to resist colonisation and desire self-determination then Europeans have that right, too. And we intend to exercise it.’

In a section discussing the EDL, Breivik praises the organisation for being the first youth movement to transcend the old-fashioned race hate and authoritarianism of the far Right. He urges ‘conservative intellectuals’ to help ensure the EDL continues to reject ‘criminal, racist and totalitarian doctrines’. But he also considers their faith in democratic change ‘dangerously naïve’. Breivik claimed to have hundreds of EDL members as Facebook friends and there has been speculation over his links to senior members of the organisation. Certainly, his manifesto shares much of the EDL’s culturalist politics.

Was Breivik ‘radicalised’ by the EDL’s ideology and by bloggers such as Spencer and Fjordman? The relationship between radical beliefs and violent acts is complex. The new crop of ‘radicalisation’ experts who have sprung up since 2004 are quick to talk of Islamist ideology as a ‘conveyor belt’ or ‘mood music’ to jihadist terrorism. But such metaphors usually conceal a lack of knowledge of the actual causal relationship. The question of how precisely ideas inspire actions did not trouble Spencer and his fellow Islamophobes while they were building careers with the simple formula that Islamic ideology causes terrorism. Now a terrorist has adopted their own radical ideology of ‘counter-jihadism’ and they find themselves in the awkward position of having to explain why their own ideas were not also an ‘inspiration’ for terrorism.

Breivik’s violence may not be reducible to the ideology of the new far Right in any mechanical way but his worldview certainly corresponds to the culturalist politics of the EDL and the US-based Islamophobic bloggers. The extent of his involvement with activists in this milieu remains unclear but his manifesto strongly reflects the themes of the new far Right: the view of Islam as an extremist political ideology; the racialisation of Muslims; the emphasis on multiculturalism as enabling ‘Islamification’; the Eurabia conspiracy theory; the rejection of old-style racism and authoritarianism; and support for right-wing Zionism.

These themes were revisited even in the response to the Oslo massacre itself. A Jerusalem Post editorial published two days after Breivik’s terrorist attack argued that the ‘devastating tragedy should not be allowed to be manipulated by those who would cover up the abject failure of multiculturalism’. Similarly, three days after the massacre, in the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Bawer, the author of While Europe Slept: how radical Islam is destroying the West from within, reflected on the ‘chilling’ thought that his writing had been cited in Breivik’s mainfesto. But, he wrote, the Oslo massacre should not distract from the ‘legitimate concern about genuine problems’. Europe, he remarked, was ‘in serious trouble’ because of the ‘millions of European Muslims’ mistreating women, creating no-go areas, attacking gays and Jews, and trying to introduce sharia. (On the day of the massacre, the Wall Street Journal had gone to print while the identity of the perpetrator was still unknown. On the presumption that all terrorists are Muslims, the newspaper’s editorial argued that Norway had been targeted by jihadists because it is ‘a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West’.) A week later, Pamela Geller blogged: ‘Breivik was targeting the future leaders of the party responsible for flooding Norway with Muslims who refuse to assimilate, who commit major violence against Norwegian natives, including violent gang rapes, with impunity, and who live on the dole … all done without the consent of the Norwegians.’ The left-wing youth camp on the island of Utøya was, she added, an ‘antisemitic indoctrination training center’. She did not think Breivik’s actions were justified but: ‘There is also no justification for Norway’s antisemitism and demonization of Israel.’ In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders blamed the Left for Breivik’s violence: ‘It is not my words, but your silence about the dangers of Islam which has the negative influences.’

The Liberal Response

The war on terror launched by Western governments enabled the emergence of new forms of racism and far-Right politics, the dangers of which were ignored for a decade, while only Islamist extremism attracted attention. When the US Department of Homeland Security, four months after President Obama took office in 2009, produced an intelligence report on right-wing extremism, the reaction from conservatives was so vitriolic that the unit which produced the report was effectively blocked from doing any further monitoring work. In Germany, the National Socialist Underground terrorist group, which killed nine immigrants and a police officer after being formed in 1998, went undetected for thirteen years, partly because the government had slashed funding for monitoring far-Right extremism. In Holland, analysts at the Office of the National Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism and Security told me in the month before the Oslo massacre that they believed there was no danger of far-Right terrorism in the Netherlands. Similarly, when I interviewed officials involved in Britain’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programme in 2009, I was unable to find any examples of work focused on the far Right. The annual budget of £140 million was being spent entirely on tackling Islamist radicalism, with funding allocated in proportion to the number of Muslims resident in a particular local authority area, rather than on the basis of an objective measure of extremism. In 2011, the police’s National Co-ordinator for Domestic Extremism told Muslim groups that the EDL was not an extremist, right-wing group and advised them to open a ‘line of dialogue’ with EDL leaders in order to ‘engage them and re-direct their activity’. Reflecting the same mindset, when the EDL marched through Bolton in March 2010, Greater Manchester Police seemed more concerned with Muslim youths and anti-fascist activists protesting against the EDL than about the EDL itself. In the days before the march, the local, multi-agency PVE group, led by the police, distributed leaflets at mosques and schools in Bolton warning people not to attend the counter-demonstration being organised by anti-fascist groups. While EDL supporters were free to rally outside Bolton’s town hall, the streets linking Muslim neighbourhoods to the centre of town were blocked by police officers, and coaches were laid on to take local young people out of town.

Finally, over the last year, government officials and the liberal intelligentsia in Europe have begun to recognise the rise of a far-Right populist politics, represented by groups like the English Defence League, and discuss how best to respond to it. The earlier focus on Islamist extremism has been replaced by the fear of ‘tit-for-tat radicalisation’, in which escalating conflict between Islamists and the far Right leads to social polarisation and undermines the liberal project. However, it remains to be seen whether policy-makers and pundits are up to the task of finding genuine solutions.

The signs are that they are not. There is an emerging consensus that the root cause of far-Right populism is the absence of a positive sense of identity among sections of the white, working class. For many, this suggests the solution lies in new modes of national identification that are not based on exclusive ethnic identities but shared liberal values. Allowing for such US-style ‘civic nationalism’ to be more strongly recognised in the political process will, it is hoped, win over the softer sections of the European far Right and isolate the more extreme elements. Just as the war on terror officially divides Muslims into moderate and extremist camps, depending on their allegiance to the West, so now nationalists are to be separated into liberals and extremists, the former offered integration into the system, the latter marginalised. On this view, the state positions itself as a neutral mediator between the various forms of extremism that confront it and sees its role as developing forms of identity politics able to draw working-class populations into accepting ‘shared values’.

The problem with this is that the proposed cure of a liberal identity politics looks very much like the disease – it does not take seriously enough the new forms of racism that themselves operate in the name of defending liberal values from extremism. And it leaves out of the picture the role of the state’s own war on terror ideology in generating the culturalist identity politics of the new far Right. In the end, liberalism will be unable to solve its extremism problem unless it can construct forms of political identification that transcend culturalism and speak to the wider social and political context of economic inequality and the collapse of working-class representation. Only if liberalism can be more than just another form of identity politics will it offer a true alternative to the far Right.


CM03: Fear and Loathing, (Hurst, London, 2012)

The following works have been mentioned in this article:

Wajahat Ali, Eli Clifton, Matthew Duss, Lee Fang, Scott Keyes, and Faiz Shakir, Fear, Inc.: the roots of the Islamophobia network in America (Center for American Progress, August 2011).

Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler, Inside the EDL: populist politics in a digital age (Demos, 2011).

Anders Behring Breivik, 2083 – a European Declaration of Independence (2011).

Matt Carr, ‘You are now entering Eurabia’, Race & Class (Vol. 48, no. 1, 2006).

David Edgar, ‘Racism, fascism and the politics of the National Front’, Race & Class (Vol. 19, no. 2, 1977).

English Defence League mission statement, available at

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Vintage, 2008).

Paul Jackson, The EDL: Britain’s ‘new far Right’ social movement (Radicalism and New Media Research Group, University of Northampton, 2011).

Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism: racism in a neoliberal age (Zed Books, 2011).