Anti-Muslim Manchester Demo Unites Britain’s Far-Right
An anti-Muslim protest in Manchester brought together far-right groups that had until recently been in decline-and theyre organizing across borders, says Dr. Joe Mulhall, Senior Researcher at Hope Not Hate
Aaron Maté : It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The City of Manchester has seen one of the UK’s largest anti-Muslim protests in years. Up to 2,000 people gathered just weeks after the deadly suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena. The demonstration brought together an assortment of people from the UK’s white nationalist, nativist, and anti-Muslim networks that had until recently been in decline.
Dr. Joe Mulhall is a historian of fascism and the far right and a Senior Researcher at Hope Not Hate, the UK’s largest anti-racism organization. Dr. Mulhall, welcome.
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Thank you.
Aaron Maté : Thanks for joining me. If you could talk about what this protest in Manchester was and the context in which it took place. I understand that the British far-right scene has splintered in recent years, but this gathering marks a gathering of all the different groups that have broken off.
Dr. Joe Mulhall: This is an incredibly significant demonstration, purely because of its size. We saw about 2,000 people on the streets, which in terms of an organized anti-Muslim street protest is a number we have not seen in the UK for some years. The British far right is going through a period of division and splintering over the last five or six years that has seen a real crepuscular system emerge where we have lots and lots of small, often regional groups rather than a single unified movement, and that’s both in the extreme far right but also within the anti-Muslim street movements.
What we saw on Sunday in Manchester was the largest demonstration we’ve seen in many years, and we saw the return of a number of activists that had been dormant for some time, people that used to be active in groups like the English Defence League. Whether we see the reconvergence of all these various splinter groups to a single movement remains to be seen, but what is certain is it has the capability to do that because of its size.
Aaron Maté : What accounts for the splintering in recent years?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: The English Defence League reached its peak in 2011 and ’12, and then that splintered up for a number of reasons. One was it was the way the organization was operating. There was internal divisions. There were splits. The leadership left. Stephen Lennon, or Tommy Robinson as he’s better known, left the organization, and the result was infighting and division.
More broadly, if we’re talking about the UK far right as a whole, we’ve seen a period of splintering for a number of reasons. In 2010, there was large elections, and the British National Party, which was the largest far-right party, which had brought all these various movements together on the far right for many years, didn’t have the breakthrough it expected. What we’ve seen since then is internal division and a move away from electoral politics on the traditional far right, and then within the anti-Muslim movement, because of the decline of the English Defence League, we’ve seen them splinter into regional-based groups as well.
It’s a number of factors that have taken what was at one point a unified far right that had the British National Party on the traditional far right and the extreme far right, and it had the English Defence League as a single and the anti-Muslim movement, and both of those movements split up post 2010, and about 2012 onwards we’ve seen a period where we’ve ended up with dozens and dozens of small groups.
Aaron Maté : How strong is the neo-Nazi component in these groups?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Depends. If we’re talking about the anti-Muslim movement and the groups that went on from the English Defence League, the neo-Nazi movements have always tried to use groups like the English Defence League. They’ve always seen them as a possible vehicle to advance their politics. But the English Defense League was not a neo-Nazi movement. It was far right, it was Islamophobic, but it wasn’t the neo-Nazis. At various times they attempted to kick neo-Nazis out.
What we saw on Sunday, again, we may well see neo-Nazis and the extreme far right and white supremacists attempt to get involved in this movement whatever comes next, but they aren’t explicit white supremacist movements. They are anti-Muslim movements and they are far right, but within these movements there is often a modicum of ethnic diversity. You get different backgrounds, in a way that they are much less homogeneous. They’re not white supremacists in the way that, say, the extreme far-right or the white nationalist scene is.
Aaron Maté : This protest in Manchester took place the same weekend as here in the US we saw the so-called National March Against Sharia. There were demonstrations in many cities. Most of the cities, counter-demonstrators outnumbered the far-right demonstrators. Was there a connection between these two marches in the US and Manchester, or was that just a coincidence?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: There wasn’t a direct … No, it’s not like this march in the UK was organized and linked into the ones in America. That said, of course both of the sets of marches you saw in America and those so-called counter-jihad movement groups that were organizing them in America, there’s extensive and long-term links into the UK and to the anti-Muslim movement in the UK.
If we’re talking about the so-called counter-jihad movement, of which Stephen Lennon/Tommy Robinson has been a part for a long time, he’s long had connections to important American anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and the like. This is a transnational movement, the anti-Muslim movement. While these two demonstrations is a coincidence they happen on the same weekend, it’s no coincidence that these networks exist.
Aaron Maté : Tommy Robinson is the former leader of the EDL, right?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Yes. Tommy Robinson is the former leader of the English Defence League, yeah.
Aaron Maté : Listen, on this issue of transnational links, let’s get into that more. Especially when it comes to Europe, you’re seeing now more and more groups collaborate in different countries, right?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Yeah. The anti-Muslim movement has long been an international, transnational movement, has organized or attempted to organize across borders. Whether or not that was groups where like the English Defence League sprung up, there was an international network which came off the back of that with defense leagues that sprung up around Europe, North America, and even some in Australia. Then those networks eventually failed. In more recent years in Europe we’ve seen a group called PEGIDA, which is an anti-Muslim movement that started in Dresden in Germany. Across Europe, again, we’ve seen groups attempt to mimic and replicate that. We had a PEGIDA group in the UK, which was again led by Tommy Robinson.
More broadly, this is a movement that has interacted online for decades, if not longer, across borders. We’ve seen people speaking at some of these events. We’ve seen Americans come to the UK. We’ve seen of course Tommy Robinson has been to America to speak and link up with people, as I say, like Pamela Geller. It’s best to understand this movement as an international movement. They perceive themselves as an international movement quite often, and they perceive themselves as being under threat as the West, if you will, rather than just purely … That’s [inaudible 00:06:54] separate from their traditional nationalist movements in some sense.
Aaron Maté : Right. You mentioned earlier that some of these English far-right groups are actually more diverse than the traditional neo-Nazi type of group. Does that concern you more in the sense that this is now appealing to a wider group of people?
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Yeah. There’s no question that groups like the English Defence League, while overwhelmingly white, they have a level of ethnic diversity which wouldn’t have happened in the traditional far right. In the British National Party, you weren’t allowed to be black and join the party. There is no doubt that these movements are slightly more diverse. They’re still of course overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. That’s worth saying.
If we look at the platform in Manchester on Sunday, there was a black person who spoke. There was an ex-Muslim who spoke. There’s been Hindus that have been at these events. They are more diverse, because essentially this group is a single issue. It’s about Islam. It’s about Muslims. As a result, they don’t see themselves, they don’t see a contradiction with being slightly more multicultural, as I say, while it is true that they are still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male.
Aaron Maté : Finally, Dr. Mulhall, I’m wondering if you have any comments on the link here between xenophobia and austerity. The traditional left critique is that outcomes like Brexit are in large part a result of neoliberal policies pushing people into blaming immigrants for their economic state. I’m wondering if you think that the rise of the far right can be addressed without seriously addressing and rolling back austerity.
Dr. Joe Mulhall: The discussion between what’s driving this, is it culture or economics, is a complex one, but I think there’s no question the effect of economic problems on the rise of European populism and the rise of various European far-right parties over the last 20 years. If you look at, say, the British National Party, which was the most successful electoral far-right party in British history — it had two members in the European Parliament, it had over 60 councilors, it had a member of the London Assembly — if you look at the areas that it did really successful in were places like Dagenham, which is on the edge of East London, Stoke [inaudible 00:09:08]. These are communities that have suffered from globalization, de-industrialization. They’ve got huge economic issues. There was no surprise that these were the areas that were exploited by the far right.
While there was of course [inaudible 00:09:22] concern some of the cultural drivers and cultural concerns that have resulted in the rise of far-right parties and groups, I think it’s essential that we always look at the economic roots of some of these things. If you look at there’s huge amounts of evidence that looks at what causes far-right activism, and quite often [inaudible 00:09:40] clear drivers such as levels of education, which of course are also linked to economic background, that one of the key drivers here is economic security.
Quite often we find cultural insecurity or people articulating their fears as cultural, whereas actually a lot of the drivers behind that are economic drivers, whether or not that be schools, houses. Obviously jobs is a really important one as well. Yes, I think there’s no question that, as we’ve seen an economic pinch in these communities over the last 10, 15 years, and beyond that these long periods of de-industrialization, and the failure of liberal democratic parties to deal with those problems all together has created something of a perfect storm.
Aaron Maté : We’ll leave it there. Dr. Joe Mulhall is a historian of fascism and the far right, a Senior Researcher at Hope Not Hate, the UK’s largest anti-racism organization. Dr. Mulhall, thank you.
Dr. Joe Mulhall: Thanks for having me. Cheers.
Aaron Maté : Cheers. Thanks for joining us on The Real News.