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My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Photography: James Montague

We’re coming
We’re coming
We’re coming down the road
We’re the infidels
Of the EDL
And we’re coming down the road.

– ‘We’re Coming Down the Road’
by Alex and the Bandits

“We should be given funding by the government. Really”

Under a cobalt blue sky, Roberta carefully unfurls the flag she religiously carries to every protest she attends. “I’ve forgotten my pole,” she laments. “I can’t believe it. I always remember my pole!” Instead of hoisting her standard high above the crowds, as she usually does, Roberta gathers a couple of other protestors around her, handing each of them a corner to pull the rumpled cloth tight for the cameras.

Surrounding this small group are hundreds of men and women who have struggled through the snow to meet in the quiet Midlands market town of Nuneaton and march in protest; skinheads chant “I’m England till I die”; football casuals with black hoods pulled over their brows, their faces obscured by masks, make last minute arrangements on their mobile phones; organisers stand unnervingly at the edges, arms behind their backs, silent, statuesque.

Someone shouts “No Surrender to the Taliban” to the tune of “Give Me Joy in My Heart”. Another, clutching a half drunk pint, despite the fact that it’s barely 11am, screams: “We Want Our Country Back” to the tune of ‘La Donna è Mobile’. Every few minutes the crowd break into the EDL’s unofficial anthem, ‘We’re Coming Down the Road’ by a sympathetic punk band called Alex and the Bandits. Nuneaton’s bewildered Saturday morning Christmas shoppers look on confused. Who are these people?

An EDL protester in Nuneaton, 27th November 2010

An EDL protester in Nuneaton, 27th November 2010

Roberta, with her long red-tinted hair, glasses and tiny, almost fragile frame, doesn’t look like she’s one of them. And neither do the other protestors holding her flag: Joe, an erudite, openly gay communist who talks to anyone who will listen about the betrayal of the working classes, and Lee, a seemingly bright 17-year-old student, whose mother is Iranian, and who one day wants to join the army as an officer.

But they are. Between them they pull open the cloth and the ubiquitous St George’s cross shines back. One quarter is filled with a large, blue Star of David. The flag reads: EDL, Jewish Division.

The English Defence League is a rare phenomenon: an entity despised by liberal Guardianistas and Daily Mail columnists alike. In 18 months it has exploded from several hundred protestors – who had gathered in Luton to stop the Muslim extremist group Al Muhajiroun from haranguing troops returning home from Afghanistan – into a growing, disparate collection of seemingly incompatible groups that is now one of the highest-profile movements in the UK. The League is led by Tommy Robinson, a Luton carpenter whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.

Now, Roberta says, the EDL has over 67,000 members, over 800 in the Jewish Division alone, and has quickly established itself as the media’s hate group du jour.

The EDL counterprotest an anti-war demonstration held by the Muslims Against Crusades, 11th November 2010

The EDL counterprotest an anti-war demonstration held by the Muslims Against Crusades, 11th November 2010

The English Defence League have been described as a group comprised of “Home-grown racists. A violent, racist organisation with links to the British National Party and other fascist groups” (Unite Against Fascism) and “A new kind of threat: a cultural movement that is unpredictable and violent” (Labour MP Jon Cruddas).

Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Tudway, the man in charge of monitoring domestic extremism, says that “our biggest single area of business [is] the various groups which call themselves defence leagues”. David Cameron has simply said: “The EDL are terrible people… if we needed to ban them, we would ban them”.

The League’s protests across the country have been dogged by violence, costing tens of millions of pounds to police as anti-fascist protestors have also vented their anger. But it is the make-up of the EDL that is the most remarkable thing about them. Unlike other fringe right wing organisations in the past that have been defined by racial purity whilst dabbling in anti-Semitism and homophobia, the EDL has thrown a curveball that the authorities seem unable to deal with yet.

It claims to be a non-violent and non-racist organisation. The organisation is broken up into several divisions – including a Sikh Division, a Hindu Division, a Pakistani Christian Division, even a Gay Division – all united around the single issue of Islam, and stopping what they perceive as the spread of Sharia law in the UK. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Roberta is the leader and beating heart of the EDL’s Jewish Division, feeding on the mistrust and fear amongst many British Jews towards Israel’s hostile Arab neighbours. Joe heads up the Gay Division.

“I’m a socialist, a communist,” he explains, picking up his placard as the protest starts to slowly move towards the starting point of the march. On it is emblazoned the slogan “Islamists are Nazis.” Usually he would hold a pink triangle that states, correctly: “Hamas Hates Homos”.

“We should be given funding by the government”, he says. “Really. We need to recognise that universal human rights are dead. This isn’t a racist organisation but at first we were spoken of as fascist, racist, anti-gay [because] the middle classes despise the working class. Now they say we are just right wing, which is a victory of sorts.”

The collection of ex-football hooligans – their allegiances etched in ink on their necks, faces, backs and knuckles – Jews, gays and communists move slowly towards the starting point, Roberta smiling behind her flag.

“They say I’m a pushy immigrant who will start World War 3”

Roberta has taken more of a convoluted route to the EDL than most. Born in Brazil, the daughter of Lebanese Jewish refugees, she made alliyah and settled in Israel at 17 before fighting in the Israeli Defence Force against the Palestinians during the first intifada, or uprising, in the late eighties. She fell in love with an Englishman 18 years ago, and the rest is history.

“I didn’t want a British passport, I wanted an English passport. OK, I understand that there is something called Great Britain but people should stand up and say, ‘no, we are English’,” she said when we met for the first time in a Starbucks on North London’s Muswell Hill, three weeks before the Nuneaton protest. “I fell in love with the people here. The English are the most tolerant people I’ve ever met. But the English, they try so hard to see the other side, that sometimes we get lost. Extreme tolerance.”

For the past eight years she has been fighting solo against what she calls Islamic extremism, but last May she discovered the EDL protesting in London’s St James’s Park and found a home for her views. She quickly established her own Jewish Division, in part to rebel against the mainstream Jewish community that wanted nothing to do with the EDL’s brand of politics.

“I was so fed up that the Jewish leadership were doing nothing about [the spread of Islam in the UK]. There was no Jewish leadership,” she says. “You go to any Jewish synagogue and they haven’t heard of the EDL.”

Roberta makes some last minute preparations in London on 11th November 2010

Roberta makes some last minute preparations in London on 11th November 2010

“We are fighting against the Islamification of the country. We are fighting against Sharia law operating anywhere in the country and fighting against prejudice, against women, Jews, Hindus, anyone. It’s not Islam. We are fighting against Islamists.”

It is this stance which has generated support for the EDL outside the UK. Geert Wilders, the Dutch leader of the Party for Freedom who has been vilified for his anti-Islamic views but who has gained some electoral support domestically, has met with EDL leaders. And then there are the links with the US Tea Party movement.

An Observer investigation in October revealed that the EDL had made contact with Rabbi Nachum Shifren, a regular speaker at Tea Party events on the issue of Islam, and Pamela Geller, who was involved in the protests against the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Roberta organised the visit by the Rabbi, to talk at a rally to show support for Israel outside the Israeli embassy.

“What pissed me off was there weren’t enough Jews there,” she admitted. “Well, there were a lot of EDL Jews there, but outside of that hardly any.”

At our meeting in Muswell Hill, Roberta told me that the next big protest was to be in Nuneaton, headquarters of Britain’s first official Sharia court, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, set up in 2007 to deal with civil issues between Muslims. But Facebook also allows her to organise flash demos when the need arises – “I’ll email if anything happens,” she said.

She flicked through the pictures on her phone: pictures of her family; her dogs Zeus, Kylie and Lulu; pictures of the protest outside the Israeli embassy, burning the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of Allah, found on several flags including those of Saudi Arabia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda.

“They told me I’m a pushy immigrant who will start World War III!” she laughed, putting her phone back in her handbag.

“Don’t turn up, or you’ll be served up!”

It didn’t take long for me to hear from Roberta. A few days after our interview, the night before Remembrance Day, she emailed me. Action was required.

The remembrance day for our troops is being threatened once again by the disgraceful MAC (Muslims Against Crusades) who have been granted permission (by the police) to scream out loud during our minute silence tomorrow. MAC is [an organisation associated with] Anjem Choudary
(Ex Islam4UK) 

The silence is a sign of respect for our fallen comrades who gave their lives fighting against evil in order that we may be free. They must be remembered.

MAC plans to attend with their shahadah [the Muslim declaration of belief, found on the Saudi flag] flags, and scream during our minute silence, insulting our troops, calling them baby killers, etc. A terribly disrespectful behaviour, which should be condemned by all of us. Therefore if you are receiving this message it means that we are asking for your presence tomorrow in order to counter protest them.

Kind regards
EDL Jewish Division

Muslims Against Crusades is a new British, Islamic fundamentalist organisation, but Anjem Choudary is an old hand at whipping the tabloid press into a frenzy. Choudary is the devil incarnate to the EDL, a man who has been involved in, or led, several groups that went on to be banned by the Home Office, including Islam4UK. In January 2010 Islam4UK was banned after Choudary announced that he would organise anti-war protests, complete with Islam4UK black coffins, at Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town through which the bodies of British servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan pass on their way home from the nearby RAF Lyneham.

Even the Daily Mail says we are the ‘far right EDL’, but we’re not”

“It is worth reminding those who are still not blinded by the media propaganda that Afghanistan is not a British town near Wootton Basset [sic] but rather Muslim land which no one has the right to occupy,” Choudary said in a statement.

The EDL saw his hand everywhere. At least Abu Hamza had a hook and a milky eye to help demonise him. Choudary was different: a media-savvy communicator whose blunt, macabre publicity stunts have attracted tabloid vitriol but, more importantly, column inches.

“The sad reality of the situation is that if we were to hold it [the protest] somewhere else it would not have the media attention it has now,” Choudary said of his plans for Wootton Bassett on Radio 4.

But Choudary was nowhere to be seen on Remembrance Day. Roberta was waiting for me outside South Kensington tube station. “It’s short notice so there will probably only be 50 of us, but that’s good,” she said, pulling on a cigarette and huddling in a shop doorway to keep out of the drizzle. “But there’s lots of police here!”

Police stand watch as EDL and MAC supporters gather on remembrance day, 11th November 2010

Police stand watch as EDL and MAC supporters gather on remembrance day, 11th November 2010

The EDL coalition assembled at the last minute was indeed low on numbers, and only those who could get the time off work were present. Some were there out of curiosity, including Benjamin, an English Democrat who stood in the last election. I asked whether he got his deposit back.

“No!” he laughed. “I got 195 votes, but I will support any non-racist English nationalist group. England is for everyone.”

Darren was less friendly and became defensive when he discovered that I was a journalist. “Almost every paper has a left-wing angle,” he said. “I got friendly with one of them [a photographer] and they told me they wait for hours just to get a straight arm.” The straight arm was the fascist salute that had appeared in the papers after various EDL marches. This, Darren explained, was a conspiracy between Unite Against Fascism and the liberal press.

“Even the Daily Mail says we are the ‘far right EDL’, but we’re not. Sometimes we see people from Combat 18 [a violent neo-Nazi group which takes its name from Adolf Hitler’s initials – the first and eighth letters of the alphabet], there’s more the further north you go. And they cover their faces and give a salute. But it gives us a bad name so we stop it. Last time a guy from the UAF covered his face and gave a salute. We posted a picture on our website and wrote: ‘Don’t turn up, or you’ll be served up!’”

Still, it was probably the wrong day for anyone to pick a fight. Only 24 hours earlier student protestors had broken through police lines and invaded Tory HQ over the government’s proposed increases to university tuition fees. The police wouldn’t make the same mistake again: several hundred officers lined the path up Exhibition Road towards the protests.

On one corner, outside the Royal Geographic Society offices, 40 or so Muslims Against Crusades protestors clad in Islamic dress, many wearing the black and white keffiyeh scarf so loved by Yasser Arafat, angrily chanted anti-British songs. In a bizarre twist of fate, MAC demonstrators found themselves standing under the benevolent gazes of Shackleton and Livingstone, shouting “Christian soldiers go to hell” and “Sharia for UK” through megaphones. One placard read: “Our Dead Are In Paradise, Your Dead Are In Hell!”


Muslim Against Crusades protesters disrupt the EDL’s two-minute silence on 11th November 2010, London

On the opposite corner stood the EDL’s counter protest, right on the steps of the Afghan embassy. A large, bald man with a microphone shouted at the MAC protestors: “You have declared yourselves enemies of the British people,” before leading the crowd into an antagonistic song accusing their God of being a paedophile, to the tune of “La Donna è Mobile”. Afghan embassy officials poked their heads around the door, fearing the anti-Muslim crowd would realise where they were, but they never did.

One lone protestor broke through police lines and jumped over the barriers into the bearded ranks of MAC, before being dragged out and arrested. Later I found out it was Kevin Carroll, a cousin of Tommy Robinson and co-founder of the EDL.

A helicopter buzzed overhead, looking down at two of the two most disliked, polarising groups in British society. All that was left was the two-minute silence at 11am. The EDL decided to turn their backs, as their nemeses hooted and hollered. They didn’t notice that, in the chaos, one of the protestors had set fire to a giant poppy and thrown it to the floor where others stamped on it.

The tabloid press had a field day, with the poppy burnings making the front pages. “Muslim Thugs Burn Poppies” screamed the Daily Star. The Daily Express went a step further, urging supporters of MAC to consider a new address. “They should be encouraged to seek out the societies they feel such passionate kinship towards at the first available opportunity,” said the paper’s lead editorial. “Because they do not belong in this one.”

“Yes, it was a success,” replied Roberta when asked how she thought the counter protest went. “We didn’t get them to stop making noise, but…” she paused, looking up at the helicopter as it hovered overhead. “They should drop CS gas on them. We know where they are.”

But it was headlines MAC wanted, and headlines they got. Anjem Choudary’s people had won the day.

“The blood that runs through our veins is of EDL DNA”

27th November: the Nuneaton protestors gather in a car park on the outskirts of town. A handful of anti-EDL protestors gather too but, aside from a few fireworks thrown by both sides, the march passes off peacefully.

The EDL are terrible people… if we needed to ban them, we would ban them” – David Cameron

Occasionally the self-aware political correctness slips. Later on the coach back to London, two young EDL members shout “Pakis” at a car of Asian youths wearing black and white keffiyeh scarves. One burns the shahadah flag at a service station car park whilst the other films him on his mobile phone. There is talk of organising a Koran burning, which turns out to be prophetic: a few weeks later the EDL will invite Pastor Terry Jones, the US preacher who made global headlines after threatening to light a bonfire of Korans, to a rally in Luton. A few days later the invite will be rescinded because of Jones’ extremist views, forcing Guramit Singh, head of the EDL’s Sikh Division, to explain the about-turn on Radio Derby.

“After doing some research and seeing what his personal opinions are on racism and homosexuality, we are not allowing him to speak at our demonstration…” he said. “The EDL is anti-homophobic and we are a non-racism organisation.”

Singh is the most high-profile ethnic minority member of the EDL and visible proof, the EDL say, that the organisation is not racist. To opposing groups such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF) he is an Uncle Tom character, manipulated by the EDL to give it a fig-leaf of multicultural, non-racist respectability. When he climbs up on to the uncovered stage, to deliver a speech in front of the 1,500 strong crowd in Nuneaton, both sides can claim vindication.

“[Islam] provokes the subjugation of women, child marriage, the procedure of FGM [Forced Genital Mutilation]. Muslims have issues like this in their communities but choose to ignore them. We see these militant Muslim men in Bradford pimping young under age non-Muslim women.”

“Scum, scum, scum, scum,” the crowd chants back.

“Then they expect us to condone the building of mosques, well it ain’t happening, not in this country, no fucking way. On this day – 27th November 2010 – we, the EDL, make a stand in Nuneaton and denounce all oppression of women. We will honour, die [for] and protect our women because they will bear the future kings of the English Defence League… the blood that runs through our veins is of EDL DNA. E-E-EDL, E-E-EDL…”

Others take to the stage to give their speeches: Jacqui Janes, the grieving mother who received an error strewn letter from Gordon Brown after her son was killed in Afghanistan, and Ruby, a Pakistani Christian for whom Roberta had written a special speech.

“In this country I have been 35 years… And I married a white man!” says Ruby.

The crowd roars its approval, arguably the biggest cheer of the day. “She didn’t read my speech,” Roberta later laments.

The sun begins to set as Citizen Steve – an inverse Billy Bragg wearing a purple army beret, a guitar and an Essex accent thicker than parody – takes to the stage. “Afternoon infidels!” he shouts. “This first song, I’d like to make clear is not about race, this song is not about religion, this song is not about the colour of your skin. I wrote this song, it is a message to all those people who stood in London on the 11th day of the 11th hour and burnt our poppies and disgraded [sic] my grandfather and his generation.”

If you hate my England
As much as you say
Why don’t you do us a favour
As well as yourself
Pack your bags
And fuck off somewhere else

By the end of his set barely 20 people remain: the rest stream to their coaches and out of the freezing cold, keeping warm by singing the EDL’s unofficial anthem.

We’re coming
We’re coming
We’re coming down the road
We’re the infidels
Of the EDL
And we’re coming down the road.

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