Young, British And Angry: What fuels the English Defence League?


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One of the main reasons I have ended up doing what I now do - making documentaries from the less accessible and hospitable parts of the world - is that I have always been slightly desperate to escape small town English life.

I grew up in Bedford, but most of my family is from neighbouring Luton, which has won several "crap town" competitions. I went there often as a child. My first ever mugging happened there. But apart from a few Christmas dinners, I've never had much desire to go back.

But then slowly, over the last few years, Luton started getting national headlines - none of them good.

The 7/7 bombers set off from there, the infamous protest against British soldiers was there and there had been several street battles that looked eerily similar to the race riots of the 70s and 80s.

When a new movement, calling itself the English Defence League, or EDL, was launched there, and soon started to grow, attracting front page headlines every time it staged a demonstration, I started looking at Luton again much more seriously.

The EDL is a fast emerging right-wing group which, over the last 11 months, has attracted thousands of predominantly young men to demonstrations around Britain.

I wanted to find out how powerful the EDL could become, what attracted so many young men to join - and whether, as they claimed, they were non-violent and non-racist, and genuinely dedicated to standing up to what it said was a serious threat from militant Islam.

Luton has had waves of immigration since my Dad was a child - Irish, Italian, African and Asian. It is often held up as a poster child for multicultural Britain.

For some, and especially for the EDL, this is a myth. They claim that not only is Luton not the happy melting pot it's often claimed to be - it's actually a town with tensions simmering so close to the surface that it won't take much for there to be a "civil war".

Did they have a point worth listening to? Some of my favourite writers had become dedicated to critiquing Islamism (very different to Islam) but others claimed that EDL were part of the problem, not the solution.

I first went to an EDL demo late last year, in Manchester. I'd spoken to several leaders on the phone, told them about my Luton connection, and that I was interested in making a film about them.

They were enthusiastic, and some were clearly obsessed with militant Islam - as they saw it, the enemy the EDL had been set up to combat. We had long chats about Sharia, terrorism and how the EDL had been formed.

I was even told that they'd decided it was stupid to be fighting each other on a Saturday afternoon at football matches, when they should all be uniting to fight Islamic extremism.

But in Manchester the leaders suddenly ignored my calls, and none of them were at the arranged meeting places. Instead, several other EDL supporters threatened to beat me up, saying that the BBC "supported Islamic extremism."

I'd just come back from Afghanistan, and made the point that I had been shot at many times by Islamic extremists, but the EDL weren't in the mood for a discussion.

Months later, myself and a colleague, Steve Grandison, managed to persuade a few EDL members, and one leader, to let us film with them.

The resulting programme, which took two months to make, was an open minded look at what was fuelling the EDL.

We came across so many examples of violence and racism, from EDL demos to EDL Facebook groups, that it was hard to resist the conclusions of so many other people - that the EDL were little different to the other far right groups that have come before them.

But equating them with the BNP, Combat 18, or the National Front is far too simplistic, as is dismissing them as racist thugs. They have black members, even a few Muslim members, and their main speaker is an Indian Sikh.

But - and this is perhaps where multicultural Britain is showing some cracks - there was regular and extreme racism against Muslims. Not extremist Muslims, terrorists or foreign fighters, but all Muslims.

One moment completed all the thoughts I had been having about the EDL throughout the making of this film.

I was in a Luton pub with two of the founding members of the EDL, who had been celebrating St George's Day.

Two childhood friends of theirs arrived, brothers, and African Muslims. One was practising, the other wasn't.

"We agree with you about Islamic extremism," they told their EDL friends.

"We'd be side by side with you at those demos, but there are just too many idiots there, we'd end up in fights."

This summed up perfectly the problem the EDL has - as long as you can hear and see racism and violence at its demos - as long as its main tactic remains organising what is essentially football awaydays - where hundreds, and sometimes thousands of young men get tanked up and march into town centres, looking and sounding like they want that civil war they have predicted, it's difficult for many people to take any political point seriously.

Hopefully the film will give a good sense of where they have come from - and we leave it up to viewers to decide what chance they think the EDL has of being taken seriously as a legitimate protest group.

Ben Anderson is the presenter of Young, British And Angry.

Young, British And Angry is available in BBC iPlayer until Wednesday, 26 May.

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