The far-right English Defence League (EDL) first emerged in 2009 as a street protest movement, whose ideology and rhetoric opposes radical Islam and Sharia law in the UK. The group’s mission statement includes declarations that it is committed to “ensuring human rights are protected and promoted” and “ensuring that the public get a balanced picture of Islam.”
The EDL has organised more than fifty marches and demonstrations across the UK over the past two years, and many of these have descended into violence. EDL supporters and others have been arrested, often after fighting with counter-demonstrators from organisations such as Unite Against Fascism. Inflammatory and provocative tactics are regularly employed. When the EDL recently marched through Tower Hamlets – an area of London with a significant Muslim population - the group’s leaders proclaimed that they were “heading into the Lion’s Den”, the demonstration descended into violence and the police made sixty arrests.
While the EDL has repeatedly denied being a racist organisation and has attempted to distance itself from the far-right British National Party (BNP), video footage of racist chanting at their marches or a glance at the vitriolic comments published on its online forums portray an utterly different picture. EDL leader Stephen Lennon (who uses the pseudonym Tommy Robinson amongst his supporters), has also appeared on television to deny claims that the organisation is racist, but he describes the Koran as a “seventh century book in its barbaric form.”
Although it is the demonstrations, violence and anti-social behaviour that make the headlines, a new study published by Demos this week revealed that the majority of EDL supporters have never been on a march. When asked about their recent involvement in the organisation, 52% of supporters claimed that they had taken part in some form of online activism.
Press interest in the organisation has led to a growth in the number of supporters, and this has largely manifested through the internet and social networking sites, in particular Facebook. The EDL is reliant on Facebook as it is their central communicative and organisation tool. There are a number of fan pages dedicated to the organisation and Demos estimate that the group has an active membership of 25,000 – 35,000 people. Amongst those supporters surveyed it found that the BNP is the most popular political party amongst EDL supporters, followed by the UK Independence Party.
The EDL is indicative of a wider trend of new far-right groups that have sprung up across Europe in recent years and has tried to form ties with other ‘European Defences Leagues’ in Germany, Poland and France. The EDL also publically supported the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders when he visited the UK to screen his anti-Islam film in the House of Lords in 2010.
The EDL have also been accused of having links to terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out twin terror attacks that claimed 77 lives in Norway this summer. When Norwegian police began their investigation it was revealed that Breivik claimed to have 600 EDL supporters as Facebook friends, was a fan of the EDL Facebook page and had previously praised the organisation.
In this high-tech digital age, new technology has changed the way that organisations such as the EDL spread their message and organise their activities. By using the internet, supporters can publish their opinions anonymously and without facing the same consequences that they might encounter should such opinions be shared in the pub or at work. The EDL is a chaotic and disorganised organisation that has no official membership procedures, and were it not for Facebook and other social networking sites then it is most likely that they would not exist.