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The far right is changing but its anti-Islam message remains

EDL affiliates are seeking new outlets. EPA/Tal Cohen

A UK government adviser has suggested that at least five new groups have emerged within the past month to stake a claim to the far-right in the UK. And according to that adviser, the catalyst for their growth has been the increasing presence of Islamic State in the Middle East and the fallout from the inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham.

Over the past decade and a half, far-right organisation in the UK and Europe have sought to gain political influence by promoting various incarnations of an insidious anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim ideology. They have taken the kind of discourse once used against Jews and Judaism and applied it to Muslims and Islam. These groups have sought to justify this by claiming the need to halt what they perceive to be the Islamification of Europe.

In the UK, this ideological frontier was opened and subsequently exploited by the British National Party (BNP). In the post-9/11 and post-7/7 climate, the BNP made significant political gains by arguing that Islam is a destructive and alien doctrine. At its zenith and on the back of highly Islamophobic campaigns, the BNP held a seat in the London Assembly, two MEPs in the European Parliament and 56 local councillors across the UK.

Its leader, Nick Griffin openly declared in 2008 that if the BNP wanted more success “[we] should be positioning ourselves to take advantage for our own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam.

As the BNP’s star began to wane, its Islamophobic ideology was soon adopted and furthered by the English Defence League (EDL). Instead of concentrating on the political mainstream though, the EDL chose to take its ideology to the streets – particularly streets that were home to large Muslim populations and more recently, where Muslims had been convicted of being involved in "grooming gangs”, such as in Rotherham. The EDL always claimed that it was not, and never had been, a far-right group something that many refuted.

But various events over the past year have damaged both the BNP and EDL, potentially sowing the seeds of their demise. The BNP lost of all its seats in the European Parliament at the May 2014 elections, having for some time struggled with dwindling numbers, party infighting and severe financial problems. Without the income from Europe it is difficult to see how the party will be able to continue, at least in its current form.

As for the EDL, it was thrown into disarray in October 2013 when its leaders Tommy Robinson and Kevon Carroll both resigned, prompting a mixed response from the EDL rank and file. Despite various affirmations that it would continue without Robinson, the movement has since shown a lack of coherence and organisation and its supporters have fallen dramatically in number.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that new groups are emerging. The far-right has always been schismatic and somewhat disparate so those once active in the BNP and EDL will be looking for new outlets for their insidious ideological leanings. This is evident in groups such as the English Volunteer Force and the North West Infidels, both of which splintered off from the EDL.

Likewise Britain First, a group created by former BNP members who fell out with the party’s hierarchy. Adopting a more confrontational and militaristic approach, Britain First members routinely speak about providing “frontline resistance” to the alleged Islamification of Britain.

This group is best known for its “mosque invasions”, during which members confront worshippers and imams. They argue that Britain is a Christian country, aggressively force copies of the British Army Bible on them and argue that Muhammad was a false prophet.

It’s not yet clear whether the actual number of people choosing to join groups such as these is on the rise or whether the far-right is merely in a state of flux. Similar numbers of activists could just be shifting their allegiances or setting up new groups in response to being disillusioned with what else is on offer.

It is clear though that all these groups will be setting Islam and Muslims squarely in their sights. They will continue to capitalise on “the growing wave of public hostility to Islam” the BNP identified just over half a decade ago. They will zoom in on the atrocities being committed by IS and the belief that child abuse cases in Rotherham, Oxford, Derby and elsewhere have some kind of link to religion.

As research into Islamophobia has shown, public perceptions of Islam and Muslims are such that little differentiation is evident between Muslims in Birmingham or Bradford and Muslims in Baghdad or Islamabad. The view is that they are pretty much the same and have similar aspirations and capabilities. So even though more than 100 British Muslims have penned an open letter unequivocally condemning IS atrocities, wider society will continue to see them as merely the public face of the faith.

So while we should expect new groups to emerge to replace the BNP and EDL, we should not be complacent about the potential for the number of people empathising with far-right groups to grow. If we do, some of these groups could find their way into the political mainstream, as some similar organisations have in Europe.

Nor should we be complacent about the danger presented by any growth in the expression and dissemination of Islamophobic ideologies. As distasteful as IS has shown itself to be and as horrifying the abuse case in Rotherham is, any group that seeks to exploit and capitalise on either has to be seen to be as equally unwanted and potentially dangerous.

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