After their failed attempts over the last few years to march through Tower Hamlets the far-right and rabidly anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL) is determined to march again into the borough this Saturday (7 September). This despite a police ban on direct entry into Tower Hamlets (their demonstration must end at Aldgate) and a pending court appearance by EDL's Stephen Lennon after his last failed attempt to stir up trouble in the area.
This time the EDL is also facing a formidable and united community in the East End. In fact, the EDL threat has united Tower Hamlets' community as a fortress against far right fascism, continuing a long tradition of resistance to fascism that harks back to the days of Cable Street.
After the EDL's last major attempt to march in 2011 local community groups came together to form United East End (UEE). The UEE held a major rally in June to 'keep the EDL out' in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder. This time the EDL will be countering strong opposition from a Tower Hamlets community that includes Muslims, trades unions, people of different faiths (and none), and thousands of those committed to living a peaceful life in this fast-changing corner of London. Anti-fascist groups are going to organise a peaceful community event to express their revulsion against the EDL in the historic Altab Ali Park (named in memory of Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi clothing worker, who was murdered by white racists on 4 May 1978 as he walked home from work).
The police have also imposed Public Order restrictions on the EDL's Saturday march limiting the group's presence to the fringes of the borough; the Met says it will have a robust arrest policy "to prevent serious disorder, damage to property, disruption to community life and intimidation".
The EDL march will be restricted between 12 noon and 3pm and has to follow a defined route, starting south of Tower Bridge, along The Minories and Aldgate High Street, not going beyond the corner of Mansell Street. It has already been barred from using Whitechapel's Altab Ali Park by Tower Hamlets Council. This means hopefully the EDL and anti-fascist groups will not meet anywhere nearby.
However, people in Tower Hamlets did really want a ban on the EDL march this year for fear of major confrontation and violence. A petition signed by 10,000 people was submitted to the Home Secretary asking the government to ban the EDL presence in Tower Hamlets. Two local MPs, Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, wrote to Police Minister Damian Green calling for a ban on the EDL march. Tower Hamlets' elected Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, also requested a meeting with the Home Secretary to call on her to ban the march, but he was snubbed by the Government. The Government response has been rather lacklustre in the face of such determined community calls.
Since its inception in 2009 the EDL has orchestrated a series of demonstrations, some violent, targeting mosques across the country. It has exploited Lee Rigby's horrific murder on 22 May by stepping up its hostility against Muslims: more than 100 EDL thugs descended on Woolwich the very night Lee was killed, causing widespread mayhem and attacking police. Many EDL Facebook supporters (which swelled in number following Lee Rigby's murder) called for attacks on Muslims and mosques. Indeed, a number of mosques have sadly now been subject to arson attacks, with all the hall mark of EDL-inspired fanatics about them. It is sad to think that a group claiming to oppose and expose extremism should so ironically contain and foster such extremism within its own ranks. An Islamic centre in north London, run by the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, was destroyed by a fire in an apparent hate crime attack; the letters EDL were sprayed on to the building whilst bombs were let off outside mosques in Walsall, Tipton and Wolverhampton. The anti-Muslim hate crime monitoring service, Tell MAMA, noted a large spike in online abuse targeting Muslims since Woolwich, too, with several men and women found guilty of enticing mosque arson over social media.
The EDL thrives on hatred and vilification of the Muslim community. Its leaders, Stephen Lennon and his cousin Kevin Carroll, have made Tower Hamlets their main target because of its large Muslim population and the presence of London's oldest mosque (established in 1910), the East London Mosque, and Britain's biggest Muslim community complex in Whitechapel. Unfortunately, it gets ammunition from some right wing journalists and bloggers who, for the last few years, have been demonising Muslims in this part of the world.
Yet the East End has been historically opposed to racism and fascism, notably since the 'Battle of Cable Street' on Sunday 4 October in 1936 when a march by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, was countered by anti-fascists that included local Jewish and Irish communities. We are continuing in that noble tradition. Then, as now, the people of the East End will see it through. By socio-economic standards the borough may be at the bottom of deprivation list, but its legacy to fight fascism remains remarkably strong.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the Chair of East London Mosque Trust and former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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