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Passion and politics in the English Defence League

‘Loud and proud’: Politics and passion in the English Defence League is a study of grassroots activism in what is widely considered to be a violent Islamophobic and racist organisation.

The book uses interviews, informal conversations and extended observation at EDL events to critically reflect on the gap between the movement’s public image and activists’ own understandings of it. It details how activists construct the EDL, and themselves, as ‘not racist, not violent, just no longer silent’ inter alia through the exclusion of Muslims as a possible object of racism on the grounds that they are a religiously not racially defined group. In contrast activists perceive themselves to be ‘second-class citizens’, disadvantaged and discriminated by a ‘two-tier’ justice system that privileges the rights of ‘others’. This failure to recognise themselves as a privileged white majority explains why ostensibly intimidating EDL street demonstrations marked by racist chanting and nationalistic flag waving are understood by activists as standing ‘loud and proud’; the only way of ‘being heard’ in a political system governed by a politics of silencing.

Unlike most studies of ‘far right’ movements, this book focuses not on the EDL as an organisation – its origins, ideology, strategic repertoire and effectiveness – but on the individuals who constitute the movement. Its ethnographic approach challenges stereotypes and allows insight into the emotional as well as political dimension of activism. At the same time, the book recognises and discusses the complex political and ethical issues of conducting close-up social research with ‘distasteful’ groups.

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Transgressing the cordon sanitaire: understanding the English Defence League as a social movement

This introductory chapter prefaces the theoretical discussion in subsequent chapters of the book by setting out an approach to understanding activism in the English Defence League - a movement routinely classified as ‘far right’ - from within social movement studies. It argues that the EDL has more in common with populist radical right than classic ‘far right’ movements and presents a new challenge to politics in the UK at a time of growing frustration with mainstream political parties. The claims of the EDL to be ‘not racist’ but against ‘militant Islam’ are set in the context of contemporary theories of ‘race’ and racism and in relation to empirical evidence of a rise ‘Islamophobia’ across the wider UK population. The chapter sets out the ethnographic approach adopted in the book and its analytic focus not on organisational structures and ideologies but individual activists and the meanings they attach to their activism.

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The ethics and politics of research with the ‘far right’

This chapter discusses the politics and ethics of conducting ethnographic research with ‘distasteful’ groups. It details how this three-year ethnographic study among activists in the EDL was conducted including questions of access, trust and consent. It considers how research respondents understood the researcher’s position and the researcher’s own understanding of her positionality and the political issues raised by research with movements perceived to be racist. It argues that although there is a clear preference among researchers for studying those communities with which they empathise, there are no insurmountable methodological obstacles to conducting ‘close up’ research with ‘distasteful’ communities. The paucity of such studies arises rather from a ‘contagion of stigma’ within and beyond the academic community which is in danger of placing subjects whose political views we do not agree with ‘out of bounds’ for research.

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The past, present and future of the English Defence League

This chapter provides an overview of the origins, trajectory and structure of the EDL as an organisation. It considers key moments in its founding and development and considers what the future holds as the movement tries to stabilise and rebuild following the resignation of its co-founders and leaders in 2013. It outlines the formal structure of the organisation and uses ethnographic data to understand how the movement is experienced organisationally by its grassroots members. This reveals a picture far from that of a closed, disciplined and hierarchically structured organisation led by a strong and charismatic leader normally ascribed to ‘far right’ movements. The chapter also discusses the acute reflexive engagement of the movement with its own representation. It is shown that frustration at negative or absent mainstream media exposure is partially compensated by the extensive use of social media but that there is also widespread scepticism about the latter, which is experienced often negatively – as a site of internal dispute and external threat.

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Everyday trajectories of activism

This chapter provides a broad brush socio-demographic portrait of activists in this study set in the context of existing data on the composition of support for, and activism in, the far right. A more detailed introduction to the life stories of eight key respondents is provided in the form of short vignettes designed to help readers understand how activism sits within real lives. The chapter then considers the routes in (and often out again) of the movement among individual respondents as well as the costs and consequences of participation. It is concluded that there is not one ‘type’ of person that is attracted to a movement like the EDL; rather decisions to start, continue and draw back from activism are set within a complex web of local environment and personal and family psycho-dynamics.

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Aspirations to non-racism

In this chapter claims to non-racism by EDL activists are critically explored. A theoretical discussion of core debates over the contemporary meanings of ‘race’, racism and post-racialism is followed by a detailed exploration of EDL activists’ understandings of what constitutes racism and what it means to be racist. These narratives suggest a genuine aspiration to non-racism among most grassroots members of the movement. At the organisational level this is evident in a commitment to excluding racism from the EDL, making it ‘open to all’ and marking a clear line between it and those parties and movements considered to be racist. At the individual level, respondents construct subject positions that they view as not racist through reference to the presence of ‘black’ people among their friends and family whilst excluding hostility towards Muslims as a marker of racism because being ‘Muslim’ is not a racial but a religious identifier. This construction of non-racism through the appeal to a narrow definition of race and racism is akin to a conservative rather than radical ‘post-race’ position which fails to recognise the continued impacts, and structural conditions and histories, of racisms.

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Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments

This chapter critically evaluates characterisations of the EDL as ‘Islamophobic’. It outlines debates about how we might define and measure ‘Islamophobia’, focusing on the question of whether Islamophobia is a new, and distinct, phenomenon or consists primarily in anti-Muslim attitudes, which are adequately understood within the existing notion of cultural racism. It provides a detailed exploration of the nature and content of perceptions of, and attitudes towards, Islam among EDL activists and shows how Islam is singled out as a ‘problem’ in a way that other aspects of multicultural society are not. In order to sustain claims to non-racism, therefore, a strategic distinction between Islam and Muslims is drawn; the object of hostility, it is claimed, is Islamic doctrine or teachings not its followers as individuals or racialised groups. However, being anti-Islam does not exclude being anti-Muslim also. Drawing on observational evidence as well as interviews, the chapter demonstrates considerable slippage in distinctions between Islam and Muslims as the object of hostility as well as, especially in the context of demonstrations, the use of generalised terms of abuse towards Muslims.

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Reordering privilege and prejudice

This chapter considers how EDL activists construct notions of ‘self’ as devalued and discriminated white working class through the narrative of ‘second-class citizens’. Expressions of resentment and injustice, and its links to class and racialised identities, are traced through the literature on the backlash to multiculturalism in the UK. This is followed by a detailed exploration of accounts by respondents of their experience of injustice and the ‘preferential treatment’ afforded to ethnic minorities in terms of access to benefits, housing, and jobs. This injustice is perceived to be institutionalised through a ‘two-tier’ justice system, which, respondents claim, allows ‘them’ to get away with things and fails to protect or recognise injustices towards ‘us’. The chapter also shows how EDL activism is experienced as a mechanism for resisting this perceived second-class citizen status. This is accomplished through a discursive re-ordering of privilege and prejudice in which ‘we’ are seen as the discriminated and those in power are dismissed as liberal elite ‘do-gooders’ who have little understanding of the everyday worlds ‘we’ inhabit.

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Emotion, affect and the meaning of activism

This chapter discusses the emotional and affective dimensions of EDL activism by exploring the pleasures of the ‘demo buzz’ and the ontological security generated by relationships formed in the EDL ‘family’. It outlines theoretical debates on emotion and affect in social movements and adopts the notion of ‘affective practice’ to understand and explore the role of emotion in EDL activism. It shows how street demonstrations are experienced by respondents as not only a place for achievement of the rational goal of ‘getting your message across’ but also, emotionally, as ‘a good day out’ with its associated pleasures (including, for some, violence and ‘disorder’). The forms and means by which the emotional collective is formed within the EDL (the use of symbols, colours, chanting and other performative acts) is discussed and arguments that these emotions are instrumentally orchestrated from above are refuted. Finally, the chapter considers the ‘reciprocal emotions’ - close, affective ties of friendship, love, solidarity, and loyalty - generated within social movements. These emotions – expressed through respondents’ understanding of the EDL as ‘one big family’ - arise out of, and enhance, the pleasures of shared activism but can work to undermine as well as strengthen group bonds.

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Piercing the politics of silencing

In this chapter the relationship between EDL activism and the external political environment is considered. It illustrates how EDL activists experience the external political realm as a politics of silencing in which the expression of their views, as well as government policy, are constrained by the application of the ‘racism label’. This compounds a wider disengagement from the formal political sphere and a denial of the ‘political’ nature of activism, which has much in common with a disavowal of politics among the population more broadly. Activism in the EDL provides individuals with a way of cutting through the politics of silencing and finding a political voice. In contrast to the formal political realm characterised as a site of compliant listening, duplicitous chatter or meaningless debate, EDL activism is experienced as a space to ‘tell it like it is’ and to stand ‘loud and proud’. The chapter concludes by considering the implications of this for our understanding of the role of deliberation, consensus, conflict and dissensus in contemporary democracy.

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