With the worrying rise of the racist English Defence League (EDL) since its launch last year, it is vital to build mass public opposition to state-led Islamophobia.

EDL protestors

The English Defence League (EDL) has grown in strength since its launch last year. From feeble demonstrations in Birmingham and Harrow, in which EDL racists were driven from the streets, it has on separate weekends mobilised crowds up to 2,000 strong.

The EDL represents a direct, physical threat to every Muslim in the country. At a protest in Stoke in January, drunken EDL supporters ran amok, attacking (real or imagined) Muslims in the street and smashing up Asian businesses.

Preventing the EDL launching miniature pogroms against Muslims and their places of worship is a clear priority for the Left. Unite Against Fascism and others are right to mobilise in response.

But we have to ensure our mobilisations are effective. This produces a tricky balancing act.

There is no question that the EDL cannot be allowed to control the streets of our towns. If they have free reign on a Saturday afternoon, every racist bigot out there will be walking a little taller by Monday.

That doesn’t mean, however, that street mobilisations alone are enough. The EDL, at its core, is a gang of football hooligans. These people spend their weekends travelling around the country looking for a fight. The ordinary people who oppose them do not.

And focusing on street mobilisations alone will not give those who oppose the EDL the confidence to protest. At the anti-BNP demonstration in Codnor last summer, there were 1,500 protestors. At Bolton and Dudley this year, there were about 1,500 protestors. We have to bring out many times that number to be sure of defeating the EDL.

That will require appealing far beyond the ranks of the existing far left.

Islamophobia: “respectable” racism

Few in Britain support the EDL’s brand of violent bigotry. Yet we are not yet seeing mass mobilisations against the EDL.

To understand why, we must understand that the English Defence League is the direct product of state-led Islamophobia in Britain.

Since the war on terror was launched, this government has sought to justify its wars abroad by reference to Muslims’ alleged backwardness. After the 2005 London bombing, this campaign was stepped up a gear.

British Muslims have been subjected to an extraordinary campaign, not just of surveillance, but of thought-policing through the Home Office’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme. Ministers will loftily declare the need for British Muslims to comply with “our” values – a demand no other group faces.

Official Islamophobia has its unofficial cheerleaders in the ranks of commentators and public figures, like Martin Amis and Richard Littlejohn, prepared to make the most appalling claims about Muslims and Islam. Hysterical headlines reinforce the message.

Islamophobia is now the only “respectable” racism in Britain. That respectability allows the EDL space to organise and march. Islamophobia unites their marchers, and cows their opposition.

The result is that EDL marches are now regularly larger than the counter-demonstrations.

A strategy for the anti-racist movement

To effectively oppose the EDL, we must tackle Islamophobia, head on.

Challenging the lies of the press and government is an important part of that. Public meetings and events, bringing in wide layers of society, can help do that. Platforms that include local MPs, councillors, church leaders, artists and musicians and others will help undermine the “respectability” of Islamophobia.

The street mobilisations must be part of a broader campaign to turn the tide on this racism. The anti-EDL protests themselves must be an example of that broader campaign, winning the support of local organisations and bringing out wide layers of society.

And the police will find it much harder to attack and arrest a platform on a demonstration that includes Labour MPs and trade union leaders alongside anti-racist campaigners.

A 200-strong rally in a town can enthuse and motivate by providing arguments for those attending. That audience can take those arguments into workplaces, union meetings, schools, colleges, mosques, churches and the rest, drawing in thousands more. For the full impact, these rallies will need to be co-ordinated across many different towns and cities, weeks ahead of the counter-demonstration.

When the National Front tried to march in the 1970s, this strategy stopped them. The BNP faced the same challenge on the streets in the 1990s, and were defeated.

The EDL is a different sort of threat to the NF and the BNP. But the method must be similar.

Mass mobilisations will block the EDL. Mass mobilisations can only be achieved as part of a larger campaign. Time is now short. But that broader campaign must be built.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).