News and Comment

Is it time to change how we tackle far-right inspired extremism?

Tuesday 2 August 2011

By Ewan King, OPM director and Chris Reed, OPM researcher

The tragedy that recently befell Norway was a stark reminder that violent extremism comes in many forms, not least far-right inspired extremism. Although Norwegian police have not confirmed reported personal links between Breivik and UK far-right groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), it is clear from his ‘manifesto’ that such groups provided some of the ideological backdrop to these appalling attacks.

Additionally, despite the EDL’s insistence in press statements that it is a thoroughly multi-cultural and democratic movement, there is clear evidence from eye-witness reports (such as those of journalist Matthew Taylor) of a virulent form of violent Islamophobic extremism at EDL demonstrations.

With this background in mind, this post assesses the nature of the threat that groups like the EDL pose and whether it is time to change how the government tackles it.

What threat do the EDL pose?

There is a temptation to dismiss groups like the EDL as a poorly organised neo-Nazi street-level movement. Although there seems to be some evidence that the EDL is little more than a protest movement (albeit one that often employs violence or the threat of violence) in terms of its level of organisation and activity, it is also clear that it enjoys at least a slightly more socially diverse set of supporters than conventional neo-Nazi groups. This allows the EDL leadership to publicly present itself as a fundamentally multi-cultural and democratic group, while the behaviour of many of its supporters at demonstrations suggests anything but. The threatening, racist and often violent behaviour of EDL supporters at demonstrations suggests an essentially Islamophobic extremist organisation, despite the multi-culturalist and anti-extremist claims of its leadership.

While the EDL have not demonstrated the capacity or inclination to carry out terror attacks in the mould of certain al-Qaida inspired groups, violence or the threat of violence is very often in attendance at their demonstrations. EDL protests also self-consciously target areas of large UK Muslim populations in the hope of maximising upset and disruption. For example, the group intends to demonstrate in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 3 September 2011. With this track record of threatening, violent and racist behaviour at public demonstrations, the EDL presents as significant a threat to community cohesion as any al-Qaida inspired extremist group.

Time for a change?

With the above assessment of the threat that the EDL poses to community cohesion and the backdrop this provides for more dangerous forms of far-right inspired extremism, the case for the government to formally classify the group as ‘extremist’ is undeniably compelling.

However, it is our view that this change would achieve relatively little in tackling the threat as it plays into the claims of the EDL’s leadership that the UK government has for some time ignored the concerns of the British working class, and risks galvanising support for them.

It is our contention that the threat of far-right inspired extremism can and should be challenged by the government, and that this can be achieved without getting unduly bogged down in issues about how and when to classify particular groups. We believe that far-right inspired extremism should be tackled under the remit of the forthcoming National Integration Strategy, which will address hate and extremism.

Many local authorities and police services have already developed responses with some success. Where police services are notified that an EDL demonstration is due to be held in the local area, they are preparing the local authority, Muslim leaders and civic organisations to work with local communities to ensure that violent confrontations are minimised, positive alternative protests and gatherings are organised, and that local people are reassured that they will be protected. Peaceful and unthreatening messages issued by local communities and leaders that EDL demonstrators are not welcome could be a powerful response.

Broader strategies can also be useful in countering the threat to community cohesion posed by the EDL. For example, education programmes that teach young people the dangers and flaws of extremist arguments can build their resilience to divisive messages of fear and hatred. Our research and report for the Department of Education, Teaching approaches that help build resilience to extremism among young people, provides many innovative examples such programmes.