03 January 2018

Copenhagen

With the date finally public, Tommy needed to start drumming up media interest and introduce Paul and Anne Marie to the ins and outs of protest politics. Both are bloggers and political activists, but neither had any experience of street demonstrations. So Tommy organised a four-day roadshow for the leadership team: first to Copenhagen to speak at a For Frihed (‘For Freedom’) demonstration and meet some anti-Islam bigwigs from neighbouring Sweden, and then on to Dresden to sign the Fortress Europe declaration and witness a Pegida-Germany rally first-hand.

‘It’s a chance for Anne Marie and Paul to get a feel for the movement,’ Tommy told me at the airport on our way to Copenhagen. In addition to the three of them, Mike the cameraman joined us, along with journalist Tom Swarbrick from the radio station LBC. For Frihed (formerly called Pegida-Denmark) is run by a woman called Tania Groth. Raised in Canada, she returned to her native Denmark in 2001, and became increasingly alarmed at what she thought was the slow Islamisation of the country. Tania came to meet us at our hotel, and accompanied us to the demonstration. She had arranged a two-mile silent march through the centre of Copenhagen starting  from  Axeltorv  square  and  following  the  wide Vesterbrogade street in a long loop back to the square. There, Paul and Anne Marie would address the crowd. Not Tommy, though, because he was trying to remain in the background.

Around a hundred For Frihed supporters had braved the sub-zero temperatures. I joined their ranks, pressed up against a line of seventy or so absolutely enormous Nordic anti-riot police officers. On the other side of the police, only feet away, 200 anti-fascist protesters jostled angrily, shouting at us.

Anti-fascists are a loose collection of activists who try to disrupt, expose and counter-demonstrate against the far right. Many are peace- ful, preferring non-violent demonstration and solidarity marches. But some have a reputation of attacking far-right demonstrations. Tommy Robinson is notorious among anti-fascists groups all across Europe thanks to his role in the EDL, and Tania warned us that she’d heard rumours that members of Antifascistisk Aktion, a militant Danish anti-fascist group, were planning to attack the march. (I didn’t know at the time, but later learned that members of AFA from all across Europe had travelled to Denmark to disrupt this demonstration.)

UK police have learned over many years of hard experience that the key to peaceful demonstrations is keeping protesters and counter-protesters apart. They do this by designating permitted ‘rally’ points where each side is allowed, usually at some distance from each other. I didn’t realise how smart this tactic is until the Danish police opted not to use it. As our march began, around half the riot police formed a large ring around us to protect us from the anti-fascists who were walking alongside us on the other side of the ring, just feet away, screaming abuse in our direction. The street was of course shut to traffic, and shopkeepers, tourists, office- workers and confused children had lined the streets to watch this spectacle. Tania told everyone not to retaliate. ‘We have to remain respectable,’ she said. ‘All these citizens need to see who the good guys are here.’

Tommy, Anne Marie, Paul and Tania walked at the front, holding a banner which said ‘Freedom’.

‘You fucking Nazis!’ chanted the counter-demonstrators, as they shadowed our slow progression up Vesterbrogade street.

‘Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!’

Paul and Anne Marie looked miserable. Both had determined looks on their faces, but clearly were not used to having high-grade abuse hurled at them from close range. Meanwhile Tommy, the demo-pro and  expert  provocateur  of anti-fascists,  appeared  to be having an absolute blast. ‘If they wanted to have a fight, they would have done something already,’ he told me, cheerfully. ‘This bunch are cowards!’ He handed his side of the banner over and  broke outside the  police ring,  waving and  swearing  at the  anti-fascists, filming it all on the app Periscope.*

‘Tommy, are you wearing your bulletproof vest?’ shouted one AFA. ‘Fuck you!’ Tommy shouted back, giving him the finger. ‘Tommy, you’re a dickhead,’ shouted another. ‘And we’re going

to get you.’

‘Come here and say that!’ shouted Tommy.

And he did, rushing at Tommy and readying himself to throw a punch. Before he could, Tommy landed the sort of punch that only people who have thrown a lot of punches are capable of, hitting him very precisely and very hard. The AFA member listed around dazed, and the police quickly intervened, ejecting him with the help of their batons.

‘Mike!’ shouted Tommy, laughing. ‘Mike! Mike, did you get that on camera? Hahaha. Brilliant. Fucking bri-lli-ant.’

*      Periscope is an app that allows for real-time video streaming that your followers can watch. It has revolutionised Tommy’s life. He frequently videos people without telling them.

Brilliant? I was standing right next to him, and at any point a big punch-up was going to erupt with me, Tommy and Mike at its epicentre. These AFA types looked angry, and so did For Frihed. If this had been the EDL, this was the cue – the welcome cue, perhaps – for inebriated demonstrators to charge the AFA, swinging punches. I was doing my best to look very visibly like a journalist, theatrically scribbling notes, taking pictures, trying to look neutral. But over the very tense hour it took to complete the march, Tommy’s punch was the only moment of violence from the For Frihed crowd (and that was self-defence). There were repeated clashes with the police, but to my surprise it was all anti-fascists who kept trying to break the police lines and attack us. It’s not always this one-sided of course.[1] In January 2016, for example, over 200 Legida supporters (a local branch of Pegida) were arrested after they went on a rampage in Leipzig. But I hadn’t realised that anti-fascists – or at least groups like AFA – are often at least as violent and aggressive as the people they are opposing. In the summer of 2017, there were repeated clashes between anti-fascists (including members of AFA), and the members of the US far right. The most infamous took place in Charlottesville, North Carolina, where a far-right supporter murdered an anti-fascist protestor. President Trump said soon after that ‘there was violence on both sides’. Given the circumstances, this was an extremely ill-judged and perhaps intentionally inflammatory comment. However, there was some truth to it. Based on my experience, AFA in particular can be extremely violent and illiberal. They took a real beating from the giant Nordic police that day, though, who looked like they might have even enjoyed it slightly.

‘Fascism’ and ‘Anti-Fascism’

When we arrived back at Axeltorv square, Tania grabbed the microphone and got on the steps (unlike in Prague there was no stage, so the speakers climbed a couple of steps that led up to a shopping-centre entrance) and said she wanted to defend ‘equality, liberty, democracy, security, and freedom for women’.

As she said this, anti-fascists chanted ‘Fascist!’ at her. ‘We’re living in strange times,’ said Paul, shaking his head.

Paul was right: this was strange. Tania was saying things that, on the face of it, were explicitly anti-fascist. Although definitions are varied and argued over, generally speaking fascists believe liberal democracy and free expression are decadent. Fascists are typically ultra-nationalist, believing in racial superiority and embracing violence to achieve a ‘rebirth’ of a mystical, racially pure, past society. These groups do exist of course, like the Aryan Strike Force, Combat 18 and the National Front. And some of them are growing. In Greece’s 2015 general election, the quite openly fascist party Golden Dawn finished third, with a respectable 7 per cent of the vote.

But this is not the ideology of groups like Pegida. Yes, racists and fascists do sometimes turn up to their marches – sympathisers of the defunct German far-right terrorist group National Socialist

Underground have been seen at Pegida demonstrations in the past – but Pegida is not a fascist movement. Even calling it ‘far right’ is too simplistic. In fact, most Pegida supporters see themselves as anti-fascists standing up to Islamist totalitarianism. The speeches I heard, whether here, in Prague, or later in Dresden, usually contained the antithesis of fascism: support for free speech, liberty, democracy and gay rights.[2] Pegida supporters believe they are engaged in a historic struggle over Western culture, identity and values which they believe are under serious and real threat from Islam. Pegida supporters see themselves as ‘realists’, as people who have the courage and integrity to ignore politically correct elites who are afraid of speaking up about Islam.

Try telling a Pegida supporter that he’s ‘Islamophobic’, exaggerating fears and unfairly demonising a whole religion. You’ll always get the same answer. They always reply that their fears are not phobic, but a perfectly rational response to events they are seeing. And they are armed with statistics to prove it. I put it to them that a 2015 ComRes poll found 90 per cent of British Muslims approved of the British way of life; and 95 per cent were loyal to the country. They replied that the same poll said 27 per cent had ‘some sympathy for the motives’ of the people who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office. I cited a 2016 poll which found that 86 per cent of British Muslims felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain, which is more than the national average of 83 per cent. True, Tommy said. But it also found that over half believed that homosexuality should be illegal.

This is where the internet comes in; and why it has been such a powerful catalyst for movements like Pegida. It provides Pegida with an endless supply of stories to bolster their canon – a bottomless treasure chest of stories that portray Muslims in a negative light. Tommy is information-sharer-in-chief, a reservoir of tales, a digitally networked millennial. Whenever I was with him, he’d regularly scan Twitter for stories that he could share with the hundreds of thousands of people who follow him. On Tommy’s Twitter feed on 21 May 2016, a day I picked at random, he shared stories about: a doctor who had written prescriptions telling patients to follow Islam (from the Metro); a church minister who had been investigated for tweeting about Pegida (Breitbart); the European Court of Human Rights ordering the UK Home Office to pay £14,000 compensation to an Iranian sex offender because it took too long to deport him (the Sun); a Swedish journalist who had told the press that he wasn’t allowed to write anything negative about immigration (Spesia); three imams in High Wycombe accused of preaching hate (bucksfreepress.co.uk); French terror suspect Abdeslam refusing to speak to judges (the Daily Mail ); fifty-seven workers with access to runways and airports being on a watch list as potential extremists (Evening Standard).

It’s like this, all day every day. And these stories aren’t made up, nor do they come from fanatical underground blogs or rabbit-hole forums. A decent number come from respectable, mainstream news outlets, and are reporting things that really are happening. The group is being propelled not by digital lies and fabrications, but rather by something more difficult to address. By cherry-picking true or half-true stories, and collating them into a single newsfeed or Twitter thread, supporters come to conclude that Europe really is under siege, that Muslims really are mostly terror suspects or groomers, and that the authorities really do ignore it or cover it up. Isn’t that what the news is reporting, after all? According to Joel Busher, an academic embedded with the EDL for sixteen months, supporters use certain ‘frames’ to make sense of all this, tagging particular phrases onto each anecdote: the ‘incompatibility of West and Islam’, ‘cultural Marxism’ controlling public life, a ‘two-tiered’ system set against the white British. That transforms one-off stories into explanations of the perceived injustices they face, and are used to unlock meaning and stimulate emotional responses.

Any positive stories about Islam, those that can balance or lend perspective to isolated incidents, are simply washed away in a sea of negativity, or framed as propaganda or liberal journalists refusing to accept the truth. Academics call the tendency to find or interpret information that confirms our existing beliefs ‘confirmation bias’, and it is hardly new. But the Net magnifies this effect, since it’s now far easier to find anything you already believe, and surround yourself with it 24/7. What I didn’t hear from Pegida supporters were the following stories, the stories that I see regularly: that it was a British Muslim, Nazir Afzal, who, as chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in North-West England, pursued grooming gangs, honour killings and female genital mutilation more vigorously than anyone else; that British Muslims give the most to charity of any group in the UK; that British Muslims overwhelmingly work with the authorities to stop Islamist terrorists; or that it was Muslims Women’s Network UK who have been calling out the ‘systematic misogyny’ of Muslim men in the British Labour Party, and on and on. Or the fact that, far from being silenced, Tommy himself has been on almost every single television and radio programme of any note. It doesn’t matter. Pegida supporters are able to find enough credible information to construct and sustain an intelligible and coherent world view which mixes genuine facts and anecdotes with frames, narratives and emotion to paper over any inconsistencies or tensions.

It’s lazy and simplistic to call Pegida supporters racist ill- informed bigots. The people who do so not only misunderstand them; they risk making the problem worse, because it provides them with the ammunition that the liberal elite are trying to silence them. The problem with groups like Pegida is more subtle. They have a tendency to tar all Muslims with the same unfair stereotypes, often in an intentionally inflammatory way, and do not apply their ‘defending Western values’ message consistently.

Tommy wasn’t meant to speak at the Copenhagen rally. But after Tania had finished her speech he climbed up onto the little steps in front of the shopping centre, took the microphone, and pledged to defend freedom, to defend Europe from people who ‘refuse to integrate ’ and complained about the AFA.

But he couldn’t stop there. He would also defend Europe from ‘the visual scars of minarets’, from the ‘sounds of call to prayer’ and from ‘halal food’.

Things get said in the heat of the moment. But the generalisations made by Pegida supporters, and often leaders, and the way they are expressed, turn Muslims into ‘the other’, the ‘not-like-us’. (In 2016, Lutz Bachmann – the Pegida boss from Dresden – was found guilty of inciting racial hatred in Facebook posts, in which he called refugees ‘cattle ’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘filth’.) They lump in millions of ordinary, law-abiding, decent British Muslims – surely natural allies in fighting the extremism they claim to fear – with terrorists, disloyal crypto-extremists and sex offenders. When the Labour politician Sadiq Khan – a Muslim – was elected London mayor with a strong majority in May 2016 Tommy said he ‘found it very hard to trust’ him. Khan is a respected human rights lawyer by training with years of experience in front-line politics as a Labour politician. But Tommy tweeted, ‘What comes first to Sadiq Khan, the interests of Islam or London? We all know the answer to that.’ Tommy then mistook Sarah Joseph (who wears a hijab) for Khan’s wife (who doesn’t) and falsely suggested Khan had forced her to adopt it. This was, I think, definitely an irrational fear of Islam.

In the end most Pegida supporters feel, deep down, that Islam is not compatible in any form with Western values. That is at odds with the anti-fascist principle of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the overarching belief that people should be judged based on what they think and do, not what religious group they belong to. Paul Weston told me he doesn’t think Muslims should run for political office because their allegiance will always be to Islam rather than the country. British Protestants used to make this argument about Catholics. In fact, Paul openly admits that discriminating against the majority of innocent Muslims because the minority are extremists ‘is a price worth paying’. No anti-fascist would say any of this. In addition to being extremely unfair and illiberal, this also stokes up general anti-Islam feelings, and perhaps (it’s impossible to know for sure) even Islamophobic crime, which is increasing. Anders Breivik had ‘liked’ the EDL on Facebook back in 2010 and praised the group in his ‘Manifesto’ (but he said they were insufficiently hard line). In 2014, EDL supporter Ryan McGee was jailed for two years for making a nail bomb and promising to ‘drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell’.

Tommy, Lutz, Tania and others told me that they can’t control everyone who might turn up to demonstrations or follow the group online, and that they make efforts to remove actual Nazis when they do turn up (which is usually true).[3] We can’t be held responsible when a couple of extremists turn up, they said, or if people commit violence and claim to do it in our name. That’s true, although when I spoke to them, they never seemed to accept the same line of argument when Muslims say the same about the terrorists.

 

[1] According to one unpublished doctorate thesis (submitted in late 2016), over the years of EDL demonstrations, between the EDL being founded and Tommy’s departure, there were a total of 1,551 arrests made, of which around 400 were counter-demonstrators.

[2] Consider the names of many of the groups that share Pegida’s ideology.  ‘For Frihed’ translates to ‘For Freedom’, as does Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam party,  the PVV. The Swedish Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, even Pegida itself: they are names that progressive, moderate liberals would be proud of.

[3] Nazis turned up at the first EDL demo, and although Tommy forced them to leave and even released a video burning a Swastika, they kept coming back. Tommy has probably had more fights with neo-Nazis than most anti-fascist supporters.

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