The English Defence League
In March 2009 the Sunni Muslim group Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa protested against the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade that was organised in Luton (UK). In response, the newly formed United People of Luton (UPL) organised two anti-jihadist demonstrations that subsequently resulted in public disorder and several arrests. From this chaos the English Defence League (EDL) arose, intending to unite the UPL with other anti-Islamic groups in Britain. The EDL aimed to raise awareness about the imperialistic threat that they alleged Islamic doctrine and culture posed, maintaining that Muslims intend to dominate British society through the process of Islamification.
Between 2009 and 2011 the EDL became one of the most active anti-Islamic far right groups, staging over fifty demonstrations and coordinating eighteen defence leagues across Europe and Northern America. Following the 22 July attacks in Norway and Anders Brevik’s documented admiration of the group, the EDL’s reputation was damaged and the group began to decline in size; only to be revitalised after the brutal public execution of British soldier Lee Rigby by Islamic extremists. This revival, however, was only temporary as the EDL were dealt another blow when their leader Tommy Robinson quit the group, citing extreme right elements that had taken hold as motivation for his exit. Following Robinson’s resignation, the EDL was left vulnerable, as the former leader took a large bulk of the group’s supporters who had become more attuned to his own narrative, with him. Since then the EDL has not been the same, managing to attract as few as twenty to fifty people, and sometimes less, to its demonstrations, with many former members finding a new political home in other far right groups that have emerged in recent years.
At its height, the EDL and its supporters were depicted as thugs and hooligans in the public consciousness, as their connection to the football causal scene in Britain and the violent confrontations that transpired during their demonstrations substantiated this portrayal of their social identity. Furthermore, the EDL and its supporters were regularly painted as fascists or Nazis in the public eye, drawing comparisons to the National Front (NF) and British Union of Fascists (BUF) because of the volatile nature of their demonstrations.
In what follows, I will assess whether those groups who protested in opposition to the EDL and its demonstrations fell victim to stereotype threat and whether this inadvertently reinforced the EDL’s narrative. In other words, by utilising the idea of stereotype threat from work in social psychology we can examine how such far right groups as the EDL have harnessed the power of stereotype threat to reinforce their depiction of their opponents and contemporary society as one of struggle that requires defending from those who they allege seek to destroy it. Specifically, that Muslim people and anti-fascist activists can fall victim to stereotype threat and how this can inadvertently validate the narrative of the EDL and other far right groups that share a similar worldview. Although little attention has been paid to the idea of stereotype threat when assessing far right groups and their opponents, by using this concept, we can gain novel insight into how we should mobilise opposition to far right demonstrations in the future whilst avoiding the unintentional repercussion of reinforcing their narrative.
The EDL’s opponents and stereotype threat
Two groups can be identified as the EDL’s primary opponents who protested against them during demonstrations. On the one hand, there was the Muslim population of British society who the EDL attempted to rile up through prejudicial chanting, proactive placards and even the choice of locations where they held their demonstrations. Some Muslim people banded together to form a group that could defend their community from the EDL’s demonstrations and protest in opposition to the EDL’s agenda, naming themselves the Muslim Defence League (MDL). On the other hand, there were also anti-fascist activists, such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF), who picketed the EDL’s demonstrations and took the opportunity to oppose them at nearly every juncture. These two groups often resorted to violent confrontations with EDL supporters, increasing the potential for the violence that EDL supporters desired and inadvertently providing confirmation for the EDL that these groups were supposedly a genuine threat to British society.
This notion of the threat posed to British society was a common feature of the EDL’s discourse. Muslim people, for instance, were portrayed as predisposed to criminality and acts of terrorism because of the influence of Islamic doctrine; whereas, anti-fascist activists such as UAF were accused of supporting “Muslim extremists” and were labelled as the real fascists. It should be made clear that the EDL’s depiction of their opponents is prejudicial and unfounded; however, the stereotype threat that their opponents fell victim to may have inadvertently reinforced the EDL’s narrative. The EDL’s depiction of their opponents as such justified their “feet on the street” message to supporters, which encouraged members to participate in demonstrations in a last-ditch attempt to defend British society from the existential threat they alleged it faced.
The EDL’s claim that British society required defending from these two groups may have been inadvertently reinforced by the stereotype threat that people who belonged to these groups fell victim to when counter-protesting. Recent work in social psychology has recognised that people can fall victim to confirming a stereotype associated with their social identity when they find themselves in a position where they are stereotyped to perform in a particular way. For instance, in “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” social psychologist Stephen Spencer noted that women can possibly confirm the stereotype that they are poor at mathematics when this stereotype regarding their mathematical ability is emphasised to them in a situation where they are stereotyped to perform poorly, such as during a mathematical exam.
I suggest that when these two groups protested in opposition to the EDL and its demonstrations, members may have fallen victim to stereotype threat. In other words, by violently confronting EDL supporters during their demonstrations Muslim people and anti-fascist activists inadvertently reinforced this appalling and groundless depiction of these two groups that was prevalent within the EDL’s narrative. That is, they have unintentionally reinforced the idea for EDL supporters that they are supposedly required to defend British society from the alleged existential threat that these people pose.
A consideration for future opposition to far right demonstrations
In light of recent work in social psychology on stereotype threat and how this can inadvertently reinforce the narrative of such far right groups like the EDL, we are able to gain novel insight into how opposition to far right demonstrations should mobilise in the future. Specifically, groups who organise in opposition to far right demonstrations need to conduct themselves in such a way that they avoid inadvertently reinforcing the narrative of the far right group whom they are protesting. That is, they should avoid resorting to violent confrontations with far right supporters whilst counter-protesting their demonstrations as this inadvertently reinforces their narrative.
Anti-fascist activists, for example, may disagree with this argument by maintaining that violent confrontations during counter-protests have been successful at defeating previous far right movements, for example, during the Battle for Cable Street. However, such a position presents an idealised and distorted image of the events that took place during the Battle for Cable Street, and also ignores the stereotype threat that contemporary far right groups have harnessed the power of to reinforce their own narratives.
Instead, as Nigel Copsey recommended in his report for Faith Matters on the EDL, counter-protests by opposition groups should be used as an opportunity to make obvious that the far right group’s depiction of their opponents is prejudicial and unfounded; they should resist the temptation to mobilise in such a way whereby they may confirm the depiction of their group for the far right group that they are protesting and inadvertently reinforce their narrative. For instance, Patrick Hutchinson’s decision to step in and carry an injured far right protestor during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in London 2020 provided a much better outcome than if Mr Hutchinson had fallen victim to the stereotype threat he was in the presence of and had resorted to violent confrontations on that day. By falling victim to stereotype threat whilst protesting the demonstrations of far right groups, such as the EDL’s, opponents give them exactly what they want, by increasing the possibility of violent confrontation and inadvertently reinforcing their radical narrative.
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).