The British (Extremists) Are Coming — Or, the English Defence League Hearts Pam Geller

Saturday’s 9/11 protest in downtown Manhattan featured the by-now-familiar chants and symbols of the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque. But amid the sea of red, white and blue, there were a few new icons added to the usual mix. As featured in a series of pictures posted Wednesday by the New York Times, a handful of protesters—seven to be exact—came from England toting flags (and ski masks) bearing St. George’s Cross. White with red crossbars, the medieval flag is most famous for its use by British Crusaders. The flag also has a long history of use by far-right British nationalists in conjunction with other regional flags. In recent months, it has become the central symbol of the English Defence League (EDL), a thuggish anti-Muslim street movement that is rapidly spreading throughout the United Kingdom.

The EDL was in New York to show support for the event organized by Pamela Geller, who, according to the EDL, personally invited the group to participate. A post to the EDL website dated Sept. 16 states: “The English Defence League would like to thank Pamela Geller for inviting us over to her ground zero freedom rally.” This would seem to contradict Geller’s claim to have repudiated the group after learning that one of its leaders was a member of the racist and anti-Semitic British National Party. (Geller is Jewish.) In February, Geller wrote admiringly of the EDL on her blog. “I share the E.D.L.’s goals,” she said. “We need to encourage rational, reasonable groups that oppose the Islamisation of the West.”

The idea that the EDL is either rational or reasonable is quickly destroyed by an 11-minute Guardian documentary that recounts the group’s defining features: street intimidation and violent rhetoric. In the video, EDL activists are heard issuing targeted threats and speaking of upcoming “murders” and “stampings”. Among the British groups that have attached themselves to the EDL are violent neo-Nazi outfits such as Combat 18 and far-right racist parties like the National Front. Because of the increasingly ominous atmosphere surrounding its public gatherings, the EDL’s founder and leader Tommy Robinson was stopped last week by authorities at JFK Airport on a tip from British police and sent back to England.

According to the narrator of the Guardian video, a reporter who spent months inside the movement, the EDL is not “simply a rerun of previous far-right organizations.” Rather, “it has acted like a lightning rod with people with a range of grievances who appear to be coalescing around a rampant Islamaphobia.”

It makes sense that Pam Geller has found admirers among extremists across the pond. As Hatewatch reported last month, Geller, co-founder of the Muslim-bashing Stop Islamization of America group, also has a fan club among the generally anti-Semitic white power activists of Stormfront.org. Such unexpected mutual affinities are also a feature of the community flocked under the EDL banner. Unlike British skinhead groups of the past, the EDL features black and Jewish members, as well as non-Jewish members who have taken to waving Israeli flags and singing the Israeli national anthem at demonstrations. One of the EDL’s leaders is a brown-skinned, British-born Sikh whose family emigrated from the same part of the world as those the EDL refers to as “pakis.”

Such is the ecumenicalism of today’s transatlantic Islamophobia: Anybody is welcome, so long as they can chant “Islamic scum” and don’t mind rubbing shoulders with neo-Nazis.