Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why I won't be protesting in Cambridge on Saturday

Most of my knowledge of the English Defence League comes from having recently read most of the website for EDL Cambridge.

In short, they don't much like Muslims. They think they are all terrorists (or rather they think all the radical ones are terrorists, with radical defined as being a muslim that wants to practice their religion in a mosque in the UK). They are bigoted, and ignorant, and not very bright - in ways that would be amusing if the consequences of their behaviour weren't so seriously negative (e.g. "In Britain women should be free to wear what they choose.... Muslim women caught wearing the Burkha should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.", or "If we were in the countries these Muslims are from we would respect their way of life. No one would build a Church in say, India and absolutely no one would practice Christianity in Saddam's Iraq.")

They are are planning a protest March in Cambridge next Saturday (9th July) to oppose plans for a new mosque in Cambridge.

For many reasons, I would like to register my protest at the EDL's planned march.

Firstly, I am a strong supporter of religious tolerance - even if I can't accept the beliefs involved in any particular religion. History has demonstrated time and time again that the world is a better place if different religions can happily co-exist in the same place. I believe this is possible, but not if even a place like Cambridge cannot permit a major world religion to build places of worship.

Cambridge is a city whose success has been built on a global economy. The knowledge based industry that supports so much of the City's economic activity is based on a University that seeks to attract the best academic talent from around the world, regardless of race, colour or creed. As a result, Cambridge is a diverse tolerant place, which are among the reasons why it is such a good place to live. Also partly as a result, the muslim community in Cambridge is very diverse, coming from many different traditions, covering many races and nationalities. It also means they have outgrown their current mosque. The proposed site for a new mosque at the end of Mill Road looks to be an excellent location, and could provide a fantastic regeneration of the built environment, as well as a new home for many of the City's muslims. I think it should not merely be tolerated, but welcomed, and as a result could help break down any barriers between the muslim and non-muslim community in Cambridge that come from ignorance and mistrust, which in turn would make it less likely that violent extremism could thrive.

The campaign group Unite Against Facism are planning a counter-demonstration in the City next Saturday. I would like to feel able to support them, but just can't bring myself to do it.

Their declaration, signed by many community leaders in Cambridge (almost exclusively from the political left) is also ignorant to a smaller extent - if in a somewhat more sophisticated and subtle manner.

"The EDL are deeply Islamophobic – bigoted against Muslims – which is as unacceptable as any other form of racism"

Race, religion and nationality are three different attributes that shouldn't be lazily interchanged. EDL may well be a racist group - I wouldn't be surprised - just haven't seen the evidence from what I've read, and their protest this Saturday is clearly based on religious prejudice - but being Islamophobic is not necessarily the same as being racist.

To the left, to describe someone as racist is about as serious an accusation as can be hurled - but hurled it is all too often in the direction of anyone that doesn't fit the left's worldview. If you aren't from the left, if you didn't support a single European currency, or oppose the EU, both could be seen as evidence of inherent racism. When it comes to immigration, you can be very supportive of the concept generally, but not to the extent that its scale or type causes real problems - but if you're not on the left, this is again more evidence of underlying racism. Cheapening the currency, and insinuating racism at the slightest excuse may help the left, but I don't really want to play along with that.

Finally, there is a fine line between being appalled that this group wants to march in Cambridge because you abhor what they stand for, and campaigning to stop them from being allowed (or physically able) to protest - which is arguably the position of Unite Against Facism. If protest is peaceful and complies with reasonable laws, people should be allowed the freedom to express opinions even if they do cause offence and upset people.

If the left really want all of Cambridge to unite against the EDL, the banner of the left wing 'Unite Against Facism' organisation and its history of violent confrontation in clashes with the EDL isn't the way to go about it - a protest based on the simple message that nasty bigoted people aren't welcome in tolerant Cambridge, and that Cambridge supports freedom to practise religion by supporting the Muslim community's aspiration for a new mosque is all that is required. But as things stand, I won't be protesting in Cambridge on Saturday.