Extremism takes many forms. A new Demos study of the English Defence League (EDL) looks in detail at the make-up of the group and its supporters. The research is the first large-scale quantitative analysis produced to date.
At JRF we have a long history of examining social cohesion through our research programme and work in Bradford. While the EDL are often associated with violence and disturbances, we have seen positive moves in the city which indicate alternative, more optimistic visions of the future. The Demos study might challenge some people’s assumptions, having found EDL supporters to be a diverse group. For instance, they are generally more educated and older than some expect. It finds their most common reason for joining the EDL was opposition to Islam. Some directed abuse at all Muslims, while others made more nuanced criticisms, condemning 'political Islam' and 'Muslim extremists'.
The second most common reason for joining related to cultural identity, with respondents referring to a love of England, commitment to preserving traditional national and cultural values, and representation of the interests of 'real' countrymen. In many cases this amounted to a defence of liberal values from perceived outside forces such as Islam.
JRF's work in Bradford on traditionally white estates has thrown up parallel issues to those uncovered by Demos. It found tensions where people felt abandoned and seen as the 'lowest of the low'. This often reflected a lack of understanding from many directions – those living on the estates, those in other communities and those in positions of power. The value of working with local residents to create solutions, allowing them to be heard, understood and to gain control, came through very clearly.
So where does responsibility lie? JRF research focusing on Cohesion, Counter-terrorism and community in West Yorkshire highlighted how the implementation of the 'Prevent' strategy at the local level had had direct and negative effects on the parallel attempt to pursue community cohesion programmes.
As the Demos study shows, there is a range of views about the most effective way to respond to the EDL and the issues they raise, with some wanting to see them banned as an extremist group. When the EDL came to Bradford last August and organised a static protest, this short film shows how Bradford responded.
In UK communities with poverty and a lack of employment or obvious routes into prosperity, issues are worsened at a time of recession and austerity. Regardless of location or ethnicity, people in these communities need to be able to engage, influence what is happening in their lives and see light at the end of the tunnel if they are going to have the best chance of rejecting extremism.
In Bradford, JRF has been working with UnLtd to launch the Social Futures awards, and last week these awards were presented to a group of excellent local people who are committed to making a difference in their communities. This is a good example of positive activity, countering the negative stereotyping too many urban areas face. It will be great if we see these enterprises help us have a society where groups like the EDL become irrelevant, unable to gain a foothold as communities become more confident and thrive.