Increasingly I’m finding myself referred to as an “EDL supporter”. So am I?
Well unfortunately this is where I have to dislodge a couple of vertebrae and reply:
“I find it difficult to answer that question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s more complex than that. However, I do believe the EDL has the potential to be an important grass roots resistance movement against Islamism. On balance I think they are more part of the solution than part of the problem. I think we need to take them seriously and discuss them calmly and sensibly. I want to find out more about them; at the very least I owe it to myself to attend one of their marches, even as an objective bystander rather than necessarily as a participant. Provided the EDL remain absolutely committed, in words and deeds, to opposing racism and condemning violence, I see little reason why people should vilify them; on the contrary people should even consider supporting them and at the very least they should find out more about them.”
How’s that for an answer? Bit shit really, isn’t it?
But in the same way I might vote half-heartedly for a political party at an election whilst not being obliged to say (for example), “Yes, I’m a fully-fledged Conservative party supporter”, I think I’m also entitled to give qualified support to another organisation even though I still haven’t decided whether to endorse them fully, for whatever reason.
You’ll have to read my three previous posts where I discuss the EDL and its leader Tommy Robinson (here, here and here) to make your own judgment about where I stand. And I’ll add some more thoughts here.
Most people are so scared of being called racist that they instinctively give the EDL a wide berth. They condemn the entire movement without any thought because they’re constantly told how racist and violent the EDL are. I refuse to do that. I don’t doubt for one second that there are racists and thugs who support the EDL; I just don’t think you can dismiss the entire movement on that basis. In the same way, you can’t completely dismiss UKIP or the Conservatives as racists simply because they undoubtedly have racist supporters too – supporters who might even be specifically attracted to what they might incorrectly perceive as “pro-racism” policies of those parties.
I’m always at pains to emphasise that not all Muslims are practitioners or supporters of violence. I’m even happy to emphasise that the vast majority aren’t. My concern at the treatment of Muslims by their fellow Muslims, in the name of Islam, is my greatest motivation for speaking out against this particular religion. But for some reason others find it immensely difficult even considering whether some EDL supporters might not be scum. As soon as you even float that possibility you become a neo-Nazi yourself, no matter what you’ve said in the past and no matter what you’ve done in your life up to that point. I just want people to think about the EDL calmly, and for themselves. If they disagree with my conclusions then fine, they can just explain politely where I’m going wrong. If I’m wrong I’ll thank them for correcting me and we’ll laugh over a beer about how unbelievably stupid I’ve been. But calling me a racist neo-Nazi thug as a knee-jerk reaction? Come on.
The EDL don’t have a great image. Part of that is justified because some of their supporters have criminal convictions (but I’m guessing not many for terrorism), and some of their supporters are indeed racist thugs.
But a large part of the bad image is unjustified. People have such contempt for our lower orders that they can’t believe a bunch of predominantly white working class lads could possibly be concerned about Islamism from a non-racist perspective. This is snobbery, plain and simple. People assume EDL supporters lack the tools to resist being racist, as though racism is somehow in their genetic destiny.
I’ve noticed amongst my fellow secularists an almost proprietary approach to our arguments. They think they’re so clever in distinguishing between criticism of an ideology and infringement of people’s rights. They think only they know about the terrible treatment of Muslims at the hands of their fellow Muslims. They think only they can understand and explain that criticising a religion is most definitely not the same as racism. So when they hear other people – especially people who are less educated and less well-spoken – making these same arguments, they’re outraged at somehow having had their arguments “stolen”. They assume EDL supporters are using these powerful arguments as elaborate cover for racism. Well maybe some of them are. Who knows? It’s always difficult to establish someone’s underlying motivation. But maybe some of my fellow well-spoken secularists are as well? Can they prove they’re not using these arguments as cover for their racism? Can I?
The point is this. You don’t need a university degree to speak out against Islamism. You don’t have to be a middle class professional with private healthcare and a final salary pension scheme to understand that Islamism is incompatible with our way of life. You just need a basic understanding of our way of life and how it’s changing.
People sometimes condemn the EDL’s tactics.
Tactics like marching in “Muslim areas”. Well let me remind you there’s no such thing and there should never be such a thing as “Muslim areas”, in the United Kingdom or anywhere else. The more we talk in those terms the more we perpetuate and legitimise the notion of segregation, of ghettoization. Our streets and neighbourhoods are for everyone, and everyone has the right to protest.
Tactics like shouting, “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah?” This is a valid use of free speech in defiance of a ruthless ideology and a ruthless enemy. Secularists who condemn these chants do so out of snobbery. The same secularists will salivate like bespectacled art critics over the wittiness of a Jesus and Mo cartoon and I’m sure many of them wouldn’t object to the shouting if it came from more polished individuals who could point to a long CV of “activism in the secularism space”. The shouting and the cartoons are different manifestations of the same fundamental rights: the rights to free speech and free expression. Their purpose is identical. Their purpose is to display defiance. Their purpose is to say, “You shall not silence us. You shall not force us through the fear of violence to respect your ideas. We don’t respect your ideas.”
Tactics like talking about the United Kingdom’s Christian heritage and wanting to preserve harmless religious or cultural traditions. Even as a secularist (and an atheist) I acknowledge this country’s Christian heritage. I’m not in the business of denying history and zeroing a cultural clock. As a secularist I just don’t think we should have a state religion, or religious power or privileges of any kind. But as a secularist I would positively argue for the right of people to maintain their religious heritage and traditions, subject to the rights of others. This is something I would have assumed my fellow secularists might be particularly well placed to do as well.
But oh no, as soon as EDL supporters talk about preserving their religious identity or traditions my fellow secularists give me the eye as if to say, “Watch that lot. We’ll have a militaristic Armageddon-obsessed right-wing Christian nut-job theocracy before long if they have their way.” Oh do calm down, dear. Don’t be so ridiculous. Even if EDL supporters are trying to hold on to the remnants of Christian power and privilege, well that’s actually an understandable defence mechanism in the face of bulldozing Islamism. And the same secularists who say – rightly – that Islam is not a race will happily assume an EDL supporter is motivated by racism for…wanting to maintain their Christian traditions.
I want all Christian power and privilege in this country to vanish but I want that to happen peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law. I don’t want it to happen through violence or the fear of violence (or a fate worse than death: being called racist/Islamophobic). I don’t want our state religion to be replaced with something even worse.
Tactics like talking about immigration. Immigration isn’t usually a topic secularists head into with their secularist “hat” on. There’s not really a “secularist position” on immigration. Secularists tend to think, and probably rightly, “Hmm, there’s nothing much for us to add to this debate, and our views will probably all be so different that we won’t be able to find much common ground at all, and we’ll just end up arguing. Let’s talk about bishops in the House of Lords instead. Boo, hiss.”
Discussions about immigration are legitimate discussions. Discussions about immigration in the context of Islamism are also legitimate. It’s unlikely we’ll solve the problem of Islamism in the UK solely by throttling back an immigration lever, but to pretend immigration doesn’t have at least some bearing on the problem of Islamism here is to deliberately ignore a piece of the jigsaw, however big or small that piece might be.
Even though a careful consideration and even change of our immigration policies wouldn’t fix the hideous effects of Islamism abroad, aren’t we entitled as a sovereign nation to tinker with one variable that might push back the tide of Islamism lapping at our own shores? Or did I just become a racist there by invoking “they’re all comin’ over ‘ere” imagery? Surely it then follows that any country that doesn’t have limitless immigration is racist? By that measure there are some spectacularly racist countries out there, far more racist than the United Kingdom.
My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that some secularists are secretly pleased when the question of immigration is at least raised by the EDL. Secularists know this is one part of the Islamism jigsaw. Secularists know this volatile subject is too hot to handle and that frenzied mob-handed Gotcha! accusations of racism await anyone willing to bring it up. If someone else wants to draw fire on themselves for talking about immigration, well isn’t that fantastic.
Tactics like talking about the building of mosques. Secularists tend to put this in the Too Difficult box. Again, my guess is that some secularists are secretly pleased when the EDL wade into these choppy waters. Let’s talk about you. Do you want more and more mosques? Were you pleased, disappointed or perfectly indifferently secularly neutral about the failed planning application for the “mega mosque” in London? Be honest now. (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much and then trying to answer honestly. Be honest first and then analyse your reasoning to death afterwards, if you must.)
If you want to criticise tactics then go ahead. Fill your boots. No-one’s perfect and everyone’s learning, constantly. But how about you make it clear you’re criticising the tactics or effectiveness of the EDL? Disagreeing with an organisation’s tactics or effectiveness is one thing. Dismissing them all as neo-Nazi thugs because you don’t like the look of them or because something doesn’t feel quite right is another.
There are fantastic organisations out there doing everything they can to challenge religious power but sometimes they suffer from an obsession with “consistency” – a belief that religion x can’t be criticised unless you also criticise religions y and z in equal doses. Consistency is important, yes. All religious power and privilege must be challenged because it’s all harmful. But being consistent doesn’t mean having no sense of priority based on harm being caused. The religion that poses the greatest danger to our fundamental civil liberties is Islam. If you think the radical Islamic cleric is as dangerous as the secretly cross-dressing Somerset vicar then I’m sorry, I really can’t help you. Challenging Islam should be the priority of every secularist.
Yes, things like bishops in the House of Lords and council prayers are bad, but in the grand scheme of things they’re not much compared to FGM, sharia councils, “gay-free zones” in “Muslim areas”, and the killer of all killers: the slow death of free speech. Our robust-ish, de facto secularism-lite can just about muster the strength to face down bishops in the House of Lords and council prayers but it’s becoming increasingly apparent it can’t handle Islamism.
I’ve been told that bishops in the House of Lords have greater power than any Islamist in the United Kingdom. Nonsense, I say. Power doesn’t only come from a reserved seat in a legislature. The pathetic clerics in our legislature couldn’t even stop the same-sex marriage legislation going through (good). Real power comes from the ability to silence and to cause fear. The French philosopher Voltaire had an annoying habit of being right: “To learn who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
My view is that we’ll only make significant progress in tackling Islamism when large sections of the general public – ordinary punters, not necessarily professional “activists” – start “getting it”, and start realising just what a threat it poses. A mass movement dedicated to challenging Islamism and only Islamism, which mobilises ordinary people, is therefore in principle a good thing. Is that the EDL? Maybe. Just maybe. And if it’s not the EDL, then who is it? What other mass movement exists which is dedicated to defeating Islamism?
So that’s it really, my current position on the EDL. I said it was complex. I might be wrong on some of this or even all of this. But I’m just thinking, and being honest. That’s all I can do. Will you do the same? Promise?
And finally, if there’s something that angers me more than anything else, it’s my fellow secularists not condemning death threats against Tommy Robinson and his family nearly as often or as robustly as they should.
You know who you are. SHAME ON YOU.