LONDON - In March 2009 a unit of British soldiers returned from a stint in Iraq and, as usual, were welcomed with a parade and reception at home - in this case in Luton, not far from London. Standing out in the crowd of civilians cheering the troops was a group of counter-demonstrators, a few dozen long-bearded Muslims who shouted slogans against the British forces and carried posters bearing messages such as "The butchers from Basra." Many in Luton were outraged, and within a few days a group organized and eventually developed into the English Defence League.
- Have the U.K.'s leading nationalists really repented?
- Muslim-Jewish relations must confront the Palestinian issue
- The unrequited love affair between liberal Jews and an illiberal Israel
Indeed, what began as an emotional reaction turned into a popular movement which, according to the British media, is growing rapidly and now numbers thousands of supporters; it's hard core is located in Luton. The organization calls for taking action against the "Islamization of Britain" and Muslim fundamentalists. British media reports suggest that the league is a magnet for extremist right-wing activists and for unruly soccer fans. In late May the organization gained an important addition in the form of what it calls the "Jewish division." According to one member, "hundreds of Jews" joined its ranks, including "young people who are dying to do something." In the streets of England, Jews can now be seen demonstrating together with people they would have shunned in the past.
Anti-Zionist groups seized on these developments as proof of collaboration between the so-called forces of evil. But the umbrella organization of British Jewry has also been critical.
"The EDL's supposed 'support' for Israel is empty and duplicitous," Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Jewish Chronicle in June. "It is built on a foundation of Islamophobia and hatred, which we reject entirely. Sadly, we know only too well what hatred for hatred's sake can cause. The overwhelming majority will not be drawn in by this transparent attempt to manipulate a tense political conflict."
Roberta Moore, 39, a petite woman in a colorful outfit, speaks in a rolling Brazilian accent and works for a commercial firm. A Jew born in Rio de Janeiro, she once lived in Israel and now resides in north London. She is not exactly the stereotypical EDL member the media likes to depict, but Moore is one of the most prominent activists in the group's so-called Jewish division. In her heart she is an unrestrained Kahanist - at least according to fans on her Facebook page.
"The activity of the Jewish division is focused more on the Jewish community," she says over a pizza in an Italian restaurant in Golders Green, London's Jewish-Israeli quarter. "We always constitute a target, here and in Israel. We see a great many people who do not understand the seriousness of the situation. They are sticking their head in the ground and ignoring developments. We believe that if we call the enemy by his name, we will be able to fight him. We single out organizations that discriminate against Jews and anti-Zionist organizations, and try to explain there is no difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. We send them letters and wait for a response, and then we take action to expose them."
However, the group's main target is the Muslim enemy, though Moore first offers a disclaimer: "I had a Muslim boyfriend for four years, but he wasn't religious. He drank and ate pork like everyone else. I have many Muslim friends from Pakistan and Iraq, and also people with whom I have business connections. I get along with them very well because they do not try to impose anything. The problem is that they are being brainwashed and believe they are superior to everyone else. They have the right to think that, but don't try to force your opinions on me and tell me the clothes I wear or the music I listen to are bad. Or that my beliefs are inferior and I must not do this or that. Why do we women have to cover anything?"
You know that in Israel, too, there are groups that expect women to cover themselves.
Moore: "I know, but when I lived in Israel I refused to dress like that. I visited Mea She'arim [Jerualem's ultra-Orthodox quarter] dressed in regular clothes, and they stared and stared at me until I asked them, 'What are you staring at?' - and they left. They never lifted a hand against me."
'An eye for an eye'
"We are not anti-Muslim," Moore emphasizes. "We are anti-Islam, as everyone should be. Islam is not a religion, but a cult. It has all the features of a cult, like the religions of Jim Jones and David Koresh. It's exactly the same. But people don't understand that."
Doesn't it bother you to belong to an organization with an extreme right-wing image?
"I know the league has a bad image, but that's not because of the people in it. It's because of ignorant people who don't understand what the organization is all about. People call them fascists and racists, but really, if they were racists, we [Jews] wouldn't be there. I also thought they were racists, but I started to check them out seriously and found that they are exactly the opposite: They are fighting racism, fighting those who harass Zionists and Jews. They have balls. I am very proud of these friends. They do things that others are afraid to do. They go into the streets, they demonstrate and they are against what has become taboo here. You can't so much as mention the word 'Islam' here, because that makes you a racist. How can I be a racist when Muslims are not even a race?
"We are not fascists, because we are against a religion," she continues. "In Britain we are critical of the Muslims because they come here and get government support and then have the temerity to hurt the country and its citizens. They say, 'We will attack you, we will inflict a holocaust on you' - all that rubbish. Why should I be silent? They accuse us of everything - the Israelis, the Jews and the Zionists are to blame for everything. Their propaganda portrays us as inhuman, and we are not allowed to criticize them? Why?"
What is the problem with the Muslims in Britain?
"They are unwilling to respect the laws of the place, so why do they come here? Let them go back home. They have enough places [to go]. They probably come here because they think they will have a better life, because they can't stand their life. I am certain that everyone who lives in a Muslim country would be happy to leave if he could. They are desperate. They come to a democratic country and start to talk against the host country. That is treason. It is intolerable."
In addition to the considerable writing Moore does on behalf of the EDL online, she attends demonstrations, confronts directors of halls who host extremist Muslim lecturers and sometimes is in the very forefront of the group's struggle.
"I get nonstop threats," she says. "They harass and curse and threaten - 'We will rape you and your mother' - but I am not afraid of them. This week there was a demonstration in front of Parliament by the Free Gaza organization. There were a few thousand of them. I thought there would be more people from our organization, but I was alone with a friend in the face of all those thousands. They vilified Israel and the police did nothing, and I stood there with an Israeli flag. Someone has to do it."
Weren't you afraid?
"They surrounded me and threatened and cursed me. But I did not flinch. Not one of them dared to touch us. One of them said, 'We will kill you.' I looked at him and told him, 'Kill me now, let's see you!' He backed off immediately. I said, 'Take out your knife and try to kill me and you will end with the knife in your stomach.' One of them kicked my flag - what nerve! And then I went wild. I gave him a mouthful and said I would smash him in the face and break his teeth."
What do you say to comments by a British Jewish organization against the cooperation of Jews with the EDL?
"They are all ignoramuses and think we are fascists. They think the league is exploiting us, while it is really we who initiated the Jewish division. If anything, we are exploiting them. I will write to those people and explain what needs to be explained. They know how to be critical, but what do they do in practice? Who are they to decide for us? What the Jewish Chronicle writes about Israel is rubbish. They are a band of leftists and I don't like that. Tell the truth, don't lie. Why are you trying to deceive people? We know who the enemy is and who is killing us. We are being attacked because we are Jews."
She also criticizes this newspaper: "Haaretz writes things about Israel that are incorrect. They twist the truth and I think that's not right. In the end, Haaretz is a media outlet read all over the world, and very often people who hold anti-Israel views use texts from Haaretz and other Israeli papers to justify themselves. That is shameful. We look very bad. We have to stand up for our country."
What do you think about the situation in Israel?
"Golda Meir was the best prime minister Israel ever had. We need someone like her today. She sacrificed so much for the country and knew what to do. When I lived in Israel I met many people like her, but today many young people have been brainwashed and don't understand a thing. They think the Muslims can be your friends and that if we give up land, we will get peace. We tried that and it failed. If you repeat the same action in the hope of different results, you're dumb."
Do you, like Golda Meir, think there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation?
"I also agree with something else she said: that peace can come only when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. It's known that there were no Muslims in the Land of Israel in the 19th century. You can't play with history and twist it. We have archaeological evidence. Who are the Palestinian refugees? They are people who have a place to return to and they are not our problem. I left Brazil and chose to live in Britain, so I do not expect anything from Brazil. That is the situation of the Palestinians, but they do not respect any law."
Do you see a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict?
"There is no solution. We have to do what we did with the Nazis - fight back! They are harming and insulting us, and we have to become stronger, to fight and that's all. Then there will be peace. It has to be made clear that anyone who touches Israel will be attacked in return: an eye for an eye. When that happens, we will no longer be in the situation in which we find ourselves today. That is the only way ... They have to respect us, because we did not disseminate terror all over the world. We disseminated knowledge and intellect around the world. We help everyone in the world. Look at Ethiopia and Haiti - the Israelis help everyone, but have you seen a Muslim charitable organization helping anyone? There is no such thing. Look at what is happening in Gaza. There is so much food there, but everyone is talking about what is lacking in Gaza, and people organize supposed humanitarian flotillas. Where is the flotilla in aid of Sudan, in aid of Haiti? I don't see any flotillas in the Atlantic Ocean. They have so much food in Gaza that they can't eat anymore; their markets are exploding but they will not help any other nation."
At this point we are joined by Alan Lake, 45, an ordinary-looking computer engineer. In a blue shirt and gray blazer, and with fair hair, he looks like thousands of other computer people you see on the Tube. No one would imagine he is one of the most prominent figures in the EDL. He terms himself an "events director" and is one of the EDL's leading spokespersons. He built its website and is responsible for recruiting soccer hooligans to its ranks.
"These guys are prepared to demonstrate, and they are already there because there is a match. This is a dirty, nasty, difficult struggle and you have to work with what is available," he told The Daily Telegraph.
"It's more of an emotional response to frustration than a genuine political movement," he says about the EDL's activities. "I am trying to formulate positions, but the organization is sometimes like an angry child that screams. There are a few points of chaos in the organization, the management is not tight enough and therefore we will not be a true political movement.
"Working with our street people, from the working class, can be very frustrating but also very satisfying," he adds. "These are individuals who care about the freedom of the British people: 99 percent of the intellectuals are a total waste of space. These workers don't know how to run a meeting or debate persuasively, but they are people who are doing something, people I respect. If there is anyone who will save this country, it is the ordinary soldiers from the working class."
So what is the problem with the Muslims, according to Lake? "They are against freedom of speech, democracy, equality before the law and cultural tolerance. In the Muslim world it's acceptable to demand that a cartoonist be beheaded or a writer executed. They declare that for them the laws of their religion take precedence over the laws of the state, so there is no possibility that they will accept secular laws. And besides, according to Sharia law, a Muslim is superior to a non-Muslim and women are inferior to men."
Is there room for concern in Britain?
Lake: "Definitely. I ask every Muslim who claims that a tolerant Islamic culture is possible to show me [today] the people that populated Persia before the Muslims: Where did they vanish to? Did they go on holiday? What happened to the Christians in Turkey? The Christians who lived in Bethlehem? There are now 99 percent Muslims in the town where Jesus was born. You expect to find a Christian community in a place like that, and there was one, but what happened to it? Why did they disappear? Could it be that violence and threats drove them off?
"Wherever Islam is the dominant culture, tolerance is infringed and non-Muslims are harmed. In the past 1,400 years, Islam has eradicated every culture, wherever it has taken over. The same process is ongoing today. Show me a place in the world where this hasn't happened. In northern Nigeria Christian villages are burned, in the Philippines women are branded, in moderate Dubai you cannot even kiss in public. I don't say that Islam should be annihilated, just as I say that we should not eradicate tigers, but I don't want tigers sitting here next to me when I eat my dinner. They're fine in the jungles of Bengal, but not here."
The blunt racist talk of the EDL has resulted in certain sensitive issues being put on the agenda, which many media outlets and political parties were formerly reluctant to address. However, it's doubtful whether organizations such as the EDL will encourage a proper, thorough debate of these subjects. Even when Lake puts forward a valid argument, he generally shrouds it within a scathing attack, replete with exaggerations and generalizations.
"There is clear discrimination in favor of the Muslims in Britain," he says. "Muslim women can cover their faces even when they enter a bank, in contrast to anyone else. There are special hours for Muslim women in public swimming pools; government institutions use Halal meat. In other words, I, as a taxpayer, pay for special meat on the grounds that regular meat is too contaminated for their kitchens. In effect, this is a tax paid by non-Muslims. That is gross discrimination.
"After the terrorist attacks against the London transportation system in 2005, 140 million pounds sterling was earmarked for the prevention of extremism in the Muslim community. But studies showed a large part of the money went to fundamentalist organizations: It was actually a prize for blowing up people in the underground. If I blow up people, will I get special budgets, too? Too bad I am a law-abiding citizen. The Buddhists uphold the law and the Sikhs behave in an exemplary way, so they do not get money. But in this crazy world the extremists enjoy a slice of the budget."
Lake continues: "Muslims are permitted to engage in homophobia and anti-Semitism. But if you are a Jew who wears a skullcap and visit certain parts of Britain, you will be in for a beating and the police won't do a thing. The police will say, 'Take off the skullcap' or 'Don't go there.' The Muslims have the right to throw shoes at police forces, for example. The Muslims have the right to spread hate, and I find that an intolerable situation: Everyone who incites against other groups should be punished. The time has come to stop the tolerance of intolerance."
Why does the media call you racists and fascists?
"Our message is diffuse. It is a broad movement and there are a few rougher elements in it. The British left is unwilling to confront our arguments, so they accuse us, like five-year-old children, of being racists and fascists. They think that by labeling us like that the problem will be solved. I try to get into the head of the average leftist, but I can't. I can easily get into the head of a Muslim extremist, but I find it hard to understand the leftists. They are motivated by fear, but are not ready to admit their fear. They will prefer to silence every alarm rather than cope with the danger.
"The true racism is on the left; in their eyes, anyone who does not belong to their circles is a hooligan and a racist. I have been interviewed in many demonstrations, but for some reason those interviews do not get into the final version of the articles, and instead you have people who look like thugs: Every one of those whom the average reader of The Guardian will decide in advance is violent, racist, stupid and inarticulate."
Along with its activity vis-a-vis the Muslim minority in Britain, the EDL takes a special interest in the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Lake puts forward several rhetorical questions, such as whether there was any point in the Oslo process, because he says "those Norwegians" can't be trusted. What's the point of international decisions, Lake asks: The UN also voted for the partition of Palestine, but the Arabs then started the war.
"I don't understand why the Israeli flag doesn't fly over Al-Aqsa [Mosque in Jerusalem]," Moore remarks. "That mosque is on our land."
Maybe because that could lead to war?
Moore: "Why should it lead to war? It's my land. Get out of my country. It's the Temple Mount. They destroy whatever is there and build a mosque in its place. Look what happened in Gush Katif [the Israeli settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip]: It was blossoming, with exports worth millions. Israel left the bloc and left the Palestinians everything, gave them the businesses and the homes. And what did they do? They went in and demolished everything, smashed everything, destroyed every house. There are geniuses in Israel, in the Technion, in the Negev. They grow everything in the Negev, in the desert sand. How much land do the Arabs have? But they don't do anything with it."
Lake: "I don't understand why Gaza was given to the Arabs. I would have said that it's my land and that's that. I don't understand why there are any Muslims in Israel at all. After all, they want to destroy you. Why do you have Muslim members of parliament? You know, there are no Jewish members of parliament in any Muslim country."
What do you think should be done with the Arabs who live in Israel?
"Your problem is that you are trying to be broadminded and tolerant, but that will not produce any solution. It would be better already for you to kick them all out and build a Jewish society."
"I would put them on buses," Moore adds, "and let them choose [anywhere] from Pakistan to Morocco. They have enough places to go to. And if you want to stay, you are under our law."
"I don't understand why after two wars, you [Israelis] are so nice to them," Lake says. "I suppose your answer is that there is no choice because this is the nature of democracy and you cannot perpetrate genocide or a mass [population] transfer. But Israel is not my problem. Britain is my problem and we are too soft, we have to change so that we can stand up to Islam."
Demonstrating a presence
It's a Saturday in late July. A few hundred members of the EDL gather in London's Westminster Square for a march and demonstration in front of 10 Downing Street. They look like their detractors like to describe them: members of the British lower classes with a prominent presence of experienced soccer rioters. Roberta Moore stands out at the end of the procession with her beautiful dog, Zeus, an anomaly in the tattooed landscape.
What started out as protests on a small scale is drawing increasing attention in Britain. At the end of August, EDL plans to demonstrate in Bradford, a city in Yorkshire with a relatively large Muslim population, where there will be more than just tourists with cameras on hand. The almost daily reports about the rise of Muslim fanaticism in the U.K. (organizations are openly calling for Britain's transformation into a Muslim republic; blind people with seeing-eye dogs were recently ejected from buses by Muslim drivers in Redding; Muslim parents refuse to allow their children to take part in music lessons; etc. ) are bolstering EDL's presence in the media.
The demonstrators carry British and English flags and a few Israeli flags. Even if it's only a provocation, it is attracting attention. They are quite organized and when they march by Whitehall and shout their soccer-like chants - "E, E, E, EDL!" and "Muslim bothers off the street!" - they cannot be ignored. Opposite 10 Downing Street, about 15 pro-Palestinian demonstrators are waiting. They too have a stereotypical appearance: the liberal middle-class student. Some of them had gathered a few hours earlier to take part in their biweekly demonstration in front of a Covent Garden store that sells Israeli Ahava products from the Dead Sea.
"It wasn't serious," Moore says, "but it was important to demonstrate a presence against those losers. We went into the shop and bought some items."
"We are not racists," insists an EDL activist who is leading the march carrying an Israeli flag and the flag of St. George, who is venerated as a Christian martyr. "We are patriots."
A family of Muslim tourists, the mother with a Dolce & Gabbana scarf covering her head, watches with curiosity and apprehension. "Muslim scum," "Mohammed was a pedophile," the league members shout. "Fascist scum," yell the pro-Palestinian supporters, who do not look like Muslims at all.
The reason behind this demonstration is to express opposition to a proposal to incorporate some Sharia laws into the British legal system, but the Israeli dimension of it stands out. A female EDL demonstrator in an Islamic-green T-shirt on which the word "infidel" appears in English and Arabic, her head covered with knit hat through which only her green eyes are visible, waves an Israeli flag for the cameras and the counter-demonstrators.
"Get out and take your Nazi friends with," people on the other side of the street shout at her; the word "Nazi" is also hurled at the police. Tempers flare for a few minutes, then the demonstration proceeds to Trafalgar Square and through the city center. The hard-core EDL supporters gather outside St. James's Square for speeches, verbal abuse by the journalists and, toward the end, sporadic clashes with other, regular demonstrators outside Parliament.
"A great day out of the house," one of them sums up.
Archbishop: More than one law
Earlier this year, the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said in a BBC radio interview that adoption by the British legal system of certain aspects of Sharia law would help preserve social cohesion in the country. For example, he suggested, Muslims could choose to have financial or marital disputes resolved under Islamic law rather than in British courts. Muslims, he said, should not have to choose between cultural loyalty and loyalty to the state.
Dr. Williams also sought to correct the impression his remarks could stir by explaining, Nobody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states – the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.
At the same time, he noted that there is a danger in the approach that, there is one law and only one law for everybody. He called for finding a constructive way to address some aspects of Islamic law, as we already do with some aspects of other religious law.