Just a few days ago I returned from a conference in London (the International Communication Association). Reading the local newspapers is one of the pleasures of international travel. I thoroughly enjoy immersing myself in the local issues and journalistic agendas of wherever I am. Of course such “news of the world” is easily available these days online, but I reserve regular online reading for a few particular favorites. In any case, in reading the English newspapers I was struck by the resurgence of the English Defense League (EDL).
The EDL is a right-wing movement, characterized by all the standard fears of foreigners and militaristic jingo we have come to expect from these groups. The EDL is particularly anti-Islam and has been reenergized recently by the large-scale immigration of Muslims into Europe and in particular by the murder of Lee Rigby. Briefly, the EDL has much in common with sports hooliganism but has developed into a right-wing nationalist group that calls for the support of particular political parties and mobilizes up to 3000 supporters when necessary. Little is known about their membership or actual size but they have been successful at gaining public attention in turning out larger crowds.
I asked two British colleagues about the EDL and one said they were a minor nuisance and not to be particularly concerned about. The other said their influence was growing and we should definitely pay attention to them. I think we always need to “keep our eye on these groups” even if they do not seem to be effective. They are associated with violence and other groups such as fascists, racists, and violent civil disobedience. The EDL has been accused of burning down mosques, fire bombings, ugly graffiti, and all sorts of provocative street behavior designed to incite violence.
An interesting reason for the resurgence of the EDL, according to an article in The Guardian and a few other analyses, is that the press in general and the population is more put off by Islam and sympathetic to Islamophobia. The media are generally full of hostile attitudes about Islam and Muslims whereas in the past they were more sympathetic to targeted groups such as Jews. The EDL has all of the organizational and discursive standards of highly nationalistic groups whose particular ideology is rooted in racism but flowers in immigration laws. These groups are in serious conflict with democratic values and can represent harsh blood and soil nationalism. The possibilities of violence are always present in these groups and things get tense very quickly.
The Home Secretary, for example, last week was asked to ban the invitations for two right-wing American speakers whom the EDL invited to speak. On June 29 the EDL is planning a march on Armed Forces Days as a show of military might and militaristic symbolism in support of “pure” English culture. The two American speakers are Pamela Geller leader of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Robert Spencer who manages a Jihad watch website.
Violence is the most defining characteristic of these groups and is justifiable grounds for preventing speech. Even though extreme opinions are not by themselves necessarily dangerous, they are typically the inducement to violence. Unfortunately, over the last few years we have increasingly defined others as “enemies.” This language immediately categorizes the other as more extreme and potentially dangerous and hence justifies more extreme behaviors. The word “enemy” is the language of the military and responsible for the ethos of undemocratic and morally indefensible tactics.
Through the growing network of television and new media it’s easier to reach large audiences by organizations like the EDL. Moreover, the immediacy of new media keeps emotional intensity stimulated and makes it easier to continue the vision of politics as warfare. The maintenance of principles for free expression will always require nuance and disagreement, but we should never lose our outrage for extremism wrapped up as nationalism.