As of late, academic studies into the far right in Western society have acknowledged that some contemporary radical right (CRR) movements have abandoned the traditional values associated with the far right and in their place embraced socially liberal and progressive positions. For example, the English Defence League (EDL) have rejected anti-Semitism, considering both the nation-state of Israel and Jews as natural allies in the fight against Islam. Similarly, in order to combat the alleged existential threat that Islam poses to the emancipation of women and sexual minorities, the EDL has made gender and sexual orientation equality a fundamental feature of their group-based ideology, establishing both LGBT and female divisions of the EDL in response.
In what follows, I offer two unique pathways that may explain why the EDL as a specific example of a CRR movement, are thought to have embraced the tolerant and modern attitudes of Western society whilst simultaneously rejecting more conservative outlooks that the far right are traditionally associated with. From this I will go on to discuss why the EDL’s adoption of socially liberal and progressive positions is received with suspicion by wider society. Finally, I shall turn to considering the political consequences that may possibly ensue if we are to accept that some CRR movements like the EDL’s adoption of socially enlightened Western values is genuine.
Pathways into adopting socially liberal values
In the West, one minority group that has been excessively singled out by the CRR as a threat to society is Muslims and the religious doctrine of Islam. CRR movements consider Islam to pose an existential threat to Western society because of the alleged imperialistic design of Islamic doctrine and culture. That is to say, according to such CRR movements as the EDL, Islam is an imperialistic doctrine that compels Muslims to colonise the West through the process of Islamification. Therefore, the EDL suggest that people ought to mobilise in support of their agenda and defend society from Islam’s supposedly imperialistic design, otherwise the West will succumb to Islamification.
By pinpointing who the victim of the CRR’s exclusionary agenda is, we can identify two unique pathways that may explain why some CRR movements like the EDL appear to have embraced the socially tolerant and progressive views of Western society. Within the first pathway it can be understood that hostility towards Islam precedes their adoption of socially liberal values. Simply put, the EDL’s apparent acceptance of the West’s liberal and progressive outlook is an attempt to further their agenda within socially enlightened Western society. In contrast, in the second pathway hostility towards Islam can be understood as a response to the perception that Islam is a totalitarian and oppressive doctrine that poses an existential threat to the open-minded values that are advanced in the West. In other words, hostility towards Islam arises due to the perceived existential threat that Islam as an alleged totalitarian and oppressive doctrine poses to the socially liberal and progressive values that are accepted in Western society.
Strategic inclusion or genuine adoption?
In wider society nonetheless, such CRR movements as the EDL’s inclusion of socially liberal and progressive positions is regarded with suspicion. It is generally suggested that the inclusion and exclusion of certain values by the EDL should not be taken at face value. That is to say, the EDL’s inclusion of tolerance and open-mindedness within their group-based ideology and their rejection of more conservative and traditional values associated with the far right is strategic. The EDL are considered to have embraced the socially liberal values of contemporary British society in order to appear more ideologically moderate in public whilst concealing more extreme ideological positions from public view, in order to avoid social and legal condemnation and achieve legitimacy in British society. For instance, the EDL’s seeming abandonment of anti-Semitism is considered a strategic attempt to dissociate themselves with neo-Nazism, whilst their inclusion of gender and sexual orientation equality is a deliberate discourse used in order to further criticise Islam.
Whilst such a view of the EDL’s inclusion of socially liberal and progressive values may have its merit, it is not without issue. As I see it, in order to continue challenging CRR movements like the EDL in Western society, we must avoid generalising the reasons for why they take a specific stand on a debate. Simply put, we must strive to offer in-depth analysis that adds complexity to what are often simplified events. By doing so we will avoid further closing down the democratic dimension of Western society and ensure that we do not push people towards the far right fringes of the political continuum.
I suggest however that there are three major political consequences that we ought to consider before accepting such CRR movements as the EDL’s inclusion of socially liberal and progressive positions as genuine. Firstly, if we are to accept that the EDL’s inclusion of the West’s open-mindedness is genuine, does this mean that we ought to admire and applaud them in the same way that we celebrate others who promote socially liberal and progressive positions in Western society? Akin to when celebrities for instance embrace and advocate tolerance within society we tend to admire and commend such people for their contribution; however, should we be required to do the same for such CRR movements as the EDL if we accept that their inclusion of the West’s socially enlightened values is genuine? Secondly, by accepting that the EDL’s inclusion of socially liberal and progressive positions is genuine do we run the risk of offering credibility to the far right’s political agenda? By stating that the EDL for example are more tolerant and open-minded than is generally supposed this can possibly legitimise the EDL and their political agenda in British society. And finally, what are the implications for liberalism as a guiding principle for political and moral action if we accept that CRR movements like the EDL’s inclusion of the West’s enlightened outlook is genuine? Although the EDL’s inclusion of socially liberal positions is considered strategic, if one of the most iniquitous and illiberal political programmes is able to garner support by appealing to socially liberal and progressive sentiment, does this also mean that liberalism is no longer a suitable principle for guiding one’s political and moral action in modern Western society?
Callum Downes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter. See full profile here.
© Callum Downes. 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).