A year ago, when six Islamist extremists planned to attack a rally by the English Defence League (EDL), the British anti-Islamic group was in the process of disintegration amid splits and the jailing of its leaders.
Today, those six extremists appeared in a London court to be sentenced for their failed attack. And the EDL – a few dozen of whose members gathered outside the court to observe the proceedings – is staging a comeback by riding the wave of reaction to the murder of a British soldier on the street in the city's Woolwich district last month.
The group – a street protest movement which has drawn its support from the ranks of veteran far right activists, football hooligans, and others – has held protests around the country, including one that descended into clashes with riot police on the night of the May 22 killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, as well as a demonstration that mustered more than 1,000 close to the gates of Downing Street the following week. And in what may yet emerge as the most serious incident, the letters "EDL" were found daubed on the charred remains of a Somali cultural center which was burned to the ground on Wednesday.
But experts say the EDL is unlikely to be able to expand its appeal and influence, due to its narrow focus on Islam and the conflicting politics of the followers it attracts.
The EDL was founded in 2009 in Luton, after a small group of Muslims protested against a parade in the city by British soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Local football hooligans launched a series of counter-demonstrations that eventually developing into the EDL, which quickly found supporters across the country. At its peak a few years ago, the EDL was able to muster as many as 3,000 people for its rallies and it had appeared to be on course to eclipse the British National Party (BNP), then the standard bearer for the far right.
The group denies that it is a "far right" organization, and describes itself in its mission statement as "a human rights organisation" dedicated to protecting the right "to protest against radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims." But critics say the EDL is a racist, thuggish organization with fascist tendencies.
Unlike the BNP, which was able to get two members elected to the European Parliament but was always unable to build on its fringe status, the EDL did not show any political ambitions and did not contest elections. Instead, the group seemed content to focus on whipping up community tensions by staging street rallies around England. The EDL has also exploited the potential of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to build up and organize support.
Its leader, Tommy Robinson, a former BNP activist who has resisted the party’s overtures to form a common front, said in a video posted online after the killing of Rigby: “We are sleep walking into an oblivion. Our race, our country is walking into Islamic domination.”
According to Daniel Trilling, an expert on the British far right, the Rigby killing gave the EDL the fodder it needed at a time when it was on the verge of collapse, and it experienced an immediate surge of support online. The group currently claims some 34,000 members on its website.
“This hasn't translated into the same numbers on the streets, and most supporters who have turned out to its recent demonstrations are likely to have been activists who had become disillusioned with the movement, but it will also have picked up some new recruits too,” says Mr. Trilling, the author of "Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s far Right."
But he also suggests that the EDL will have difficulty solidifying any strengthening in support.
“Its strength – a narrow focus on Islam, loose organizing via football hooligan networks and social media, which allows it to assemble numbers at short notice – is also its weakness. The various political tendencies – neo-Nazis, hardcore racists, conspiracy theorists, angry young men and women – frequently fall out and fight with one another.”
At the same time however, he says that the backlash faced by British Muslims in the wake of Rigby’s death has been greater even the one which came after previous events such as the July 2005 suicide bombings in London.
“I think it's no accident that this has come after a prolonged period of attacks on immigration and on multiculturalism in the media and from our politicians.”
Rising concern from Muslims
The leaders of Britain’s Muslim community have meanwhile appealed to the police to step up protection after a rise in anti-Muslim incidents, the latest being the suspicious fire that destroyed a Somali cultural center in north London. Police said they found the initials "EDL" painted on the remains.
The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Farooq Murad, said in statement following the suspected arson attack on the building: "This is the latest in a series of attacks on Muslim institutions since the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. The British Muslim community came out in droves to condemn this murder, and it is despicable that Muslims should be held to account and suffer in this way."
In a statement on its website, the EDL denied involvement and suggested that the incident may have been an attempt by anti-EDL Muslims to frame the group.
"An attack on a place of worship is an attack on all of the community," it said. "Whoever carried out this arson attack needs to be condemned in the strongest possible way, whether that person or persons are Muslim or non-Muslim, the truth must come out...."