Having worked in the probation service for over 16 years, I was always exposed, and privy, to the ugly realities of individual and collective drivers for the radical right. However, the punishment and rehabilitative ideal at a practitioner level was far different to that of building resilient communities and engaging civic society groups in my current role – Not even eight months into my role as community co-ordinator under the Government’s 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy, with my counter extremism and community lens I was forced to look at two radical right demonstrations that recently took place across the country.
So, what constitutes a strong community or society response I could only understand by throwing the net out. ‘The many faces of the far right’ was an event held on 11 May 2018 to not only set out the acute threat of radical right extremism in its different forms from an evidence-based perspective, but to empower frontline practitioners and civil society groups in having both confidence and knowledge for those difficult conversations. Stories by ex-extremists, and those who engaged with the radical right at a community level, help in understanding that local issues of isolation, injustice, and grievance can so easily be manipulated to feed into radical right narratives.
On the day, I was met with an air of anticipation. What was this unique event that merged the academia and societal responses to radical right narrative, and would it make our great city resilient? It was a given that the consensus was that Britain, and in particular Birmingham, has been confronted repeatedly with the grim reality of radical right extremism that runs directly counter to our way of living. In the room, we were all aware that this narrative runs from one extreme to another; from those that protest violence on one end, to those that preach hatred and division through their hateful speech on the other.
Examples of cases like Pavlo Lapshyn, who murdered Mohammed Saleem on the streets of Birmingham, and who was convicted in October 2013 for plotting a campaign of terror against Midlands mosques, is but one example of the violent lengths that the radical right are increasingly willing to go today.
On a more regular basis, however, all too often the city is faced with the rhetoric of the likes of the recently-jailed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and Jayda Fransen, who advance religiously aggravated rhetoric. Of course, this is brought to the fore in Birmingham when there are marches and demonstrations by the English Defence League and the more recent Football Lads Alliance, who engage in racist chanting in order to stoke inter-community tensions. It was only in March 2018 that Tommy Robinson joined some 3,000 Football Lads Alliance activists in the city.
With its diverse and vibrant cosmopolitan communities, over the years Birmingham has seen how radical right extremism is often belligerent; and often intertwined with public and political debates on immigration and integration, or even housing and employment. Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in nearby Wolverhampton provides an infamous backdrop. The city has seen how the radical right plays off current affairs and traumatic events, such as young girls being sexually groomed – let alone horrific acts of terrorism, such as the murder of Lee Rigby. All too often, these stories have been misconstrued in order to instil fear or to mobilise supporters’ hateful (and mainly anti-Muslim) expressions and even crimes. More recent causes have taken place under the banner of free speech; for instance, the weekend prior to our event witnessed radical right figures march through London because Tommy Robinson was banned from Twitter.
In essence, our event quenched the thirst to better understand the radical right. As one participant stated, ‘there’s nowhere to learn about these matters’. The afternoon sessions set out what we know about the key principals and differing ideologies of radical right extremism; including Islamophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism, allowing our panel discussion to sharpen community responses in providing a counter-narrative.
A vital question raised was whether the local presence of immigrant groups increases white hostility; a theme that resonated widely across our panel discussion. Whilst some groups felt that the positive effect of inter-ethnic and inter-faith contact was essential in reducing indifference and intolerance, others were less sure. The question of what age should ‘engagement’ start did, however, remain unanswered. Indeed it remains the case that we may not know the impact of these encounters until years down the line. The stark question persists as to whether this is a question of integration and acceptance, or merely a discriminatory attitude to immigration and difference – especially if some fear, groundlessly, that Muslims are attempting to ‘Islamify’ Britain.
This fear of ‘Islamification’, nationalism and rising anti-Semitism was arguably attributed to an identity crisis or victimhood. One contributor stressed the importance of ‘identity’ for understanding individual involvement in the EDL and cognate groups, suggesting that only by understanding their collective grievances, such as in the form of child sexual abuse, economic deprivation and multi-culturalism in Britain, can we understand its anti-Muslim and anti-establishment stance. The exploitation of victims’ grievances is only too well-known.
Furthermore, there was an argument that for ‘at risk’ individuals, positive empowerment and engagement are a way for them to disengage from these groups. Examples were of local mosques creating opportunities for dialogue by providing tea and biscuits, as was recently the case at an EDL demonstration in York. Whilst this can go some way to reducing antagonism or offering an alternative perspective, in my view this requires a greater governmental response. If the one unifying theme of the EDL’s collective identity is claiming ‘victim’ status, then surely this suggests the need for economic and structural changes to challenge the deprivations amongst impoverished groups in our society. Even more so, this argument fails to offer a ‘fix’ for public figures and officials who endorse the sentiments of the far-right through their tweets or re-tweets.
Interestingly, and to my surprise, a victim of a hate attack shared his ability to forgive and ‘absorb the hatred’ of his attacker, although this sentiment was not widely accepted. My feeling is that this strength and courage takes a certain temperament, one that is only afforded an opportunity for change in the face of tragedy.
The debate around a viable community response is not one that is simple, especially in a city like Birmingham. My pledge, therefore, would be that we can collectively do more If the radical right has many faces, then we should develop many responses in turn. These responses should sit in the socio-economic and political sphere, where we can provide a strong and joined up response to social policy, integration and education. We can all do more to challenge the structural inequalities in our society, which so often create a platform for discrimination and indifference. It is only then that we can not only start to challenge hateful radical right narratives, but stop them from breeding.
Shaida Bibi works as a Community Co-Ordinator for Birmingham City Council under the Government’s Counter Extremism Strategy.
© Shaida Bibi. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).