The English Defence League was on the streets of Newcastle recently. The racist organisation, with a strong base amongst football hooligans, has grown rapidly since its formation last year. A sort of mobile army of streetfighters and demonstrators, it has protested against perceived 'Islamification' and 'Islamic extremism' in Luton, Stoke, Bolton, Dudley and elsewhere.
This new phenomenon is often seen as a fairly straightforward continuation in the history of the far right. Some mistakenly lapse into dubbing the EDL 'fascist' or naively thinking it is essentially a streetfighting wing of British fascism, an uglier and more violent corrollary to the respectability-seeking electoral machine of the British National Party (BNP). But this fails to explain the size of the EDL mobilisations - over 1000 people on a number of occasions - or the mutual loathing between the BNP leaders and key figures in the EDL.
In fact the binding force for EDL supporters is quite specifically hostility to Islam, and more importantly to British Muslims who are viewed as a threat to 'our' way of life, an 'enemy within'. There is a little overlap, inevitably, between BNP activists and those to be found on EDL demonstrations.
But even the core of the EDL's active support is not ideologically fascist. What defines them is virulent Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is the frontline of racism and anti-racism in British society today. That is not to deny or downplay other manifestations of racism. Immigration is of course a contentious and politically important issue - and one where, regrettably, the media and political class have successfully, in recent years, led a shift to the right in the terms of debate.
However, hostility to Muslims is now the cutting edge of racism - it has been aptly described as the last respectable racism. What might be unsayable about any other group is said, without shame, about Muslims.
What matters here is that EDL hardcore racism is not an aberration. It is an intensified version of something much more widespread: distrust and suspicion of Muslims, anxieties about a 'clash of values', perceptions of British Muslims as terrorists and suicide bombers. And, crucially, these popular attitudes are encouraged and legitimised by powerful forces at the top of society.
Politicians have passed laws which not only undermine civil liberties but involve characterising British Muslims as a security threat. Police harassment of ethnic minorities is nothing new, but increasingly it has been targeted at those who are Muslim - or at least ‘look Muslim’. The courts have played their part, with the jailing of young Muslims who protested at Israel’s invasion of Gaza last January.
Islamophobia, therefore, is state-led. It is accompanied by media portrayals focusing excessively, almost fetishistically, on alleged ‘terror plots’, with Muslims framed relentlessly as the ‘Other’ meant to be feared.
Even supposed liberals, from Martin Amis to Nick Cohen, fuel the demonisation, insisting that Islam is a backward, uncivilised monolith that threatens our liberal Enlightenment values. They must, presumably, be the enlightened values that blitzed Baghdad, turned Fallujah into a modern-day Guernica and consigned Afghanistan to a seemingly endless war.
The recent Islamophobia conference in London was initiated by Stop the War and British Muslim Initiative to discuss this wider culture of Islamophobia, and how to effectively oppose it. The anti-war movement has a vital role precisely because this form of racism is shaped by the 'war on terror' (and the project of justifying it ideologically).
On Friday our local Stop the War group will be hosting a major public event on Islamophobia and its connection to the wars and occupations.
Friday 18 June, 5.30pm, Herschel Building, Newcastle University
Stop Islamophobia: Defend Muslim Communities
Public meeting with Yvonne Ridley, organised by Tyneside StWC
Also speaking: Alex Snowdon (Tyneside Stop the War Coalition), Mahmoud Kurdi (President, Muslim Association of Britain - Newcastle), Dipu Ahad (Labour councillor, Elswick), Zaynab Sharif (Newcastle University Islamic Society). Chair: Tony Dowling (Tyneside Stop the War Coalition)