Anti-fascists oppose FLA march in Birmingham

HUNDREDS of anti-fascists turned out in Birmingham last Saturday to register their opposition to a march organised by the Islamophobic Football Lads Alliance (FLA).

The FLA has already managed to split and the newly-separated Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) also held a march in Birmingham on Saturday. Between them the two groups mobilised about 4,000, which is less than a quarter of the number they had hoped to muster. The FLA was also disappointed with a very small mobilisation in Scotland last November and this represents a considerable setback for the FLA compared with its march in London last October.

Nevertheless, nobody should be complacent. The marches on Saturday were avowedly racist and Islamophobic. The sharp trajectory rightwards that Stand Up to Racism has repeatedly warned of was clearly visible.

The FLA has very little to do with football and has attracted a wide assortment of racists, Islamophobes and neo-fascists who have been at a loose end since the collapse of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). A number of tiny splinter groups have emerged over the last few years — the South East Alliance, Britain first and others — which have been hardcore fascist. But all have failed to raise significant numbers and usually find themselves humiliated when trying to organise public events .

But the FLA has arisen, boosted by terror attacks in London and Manchester and attracting large numbers of people, many of whom will fall away when they realise they are marching next to neo-Nazis.

On the FLA march the main speaker was Anne Marie Waters, formerly of UKIP and now leader of the far right For Britain party. Her speech had a message for Muslims: “millions of decent British people are offended by this religion.”

Former EDL leader, Stephen Yaxley Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, was cheered on the march as a hero.

But he suddenly abandoned his former supporters from the EDL in 2013, after his EDL marches had met with a succession of overwhelming anti-fascist turnouts that had simply blocked his marches in Brighton, Bristol, east London and other places.

Robinson called a press conference to announce he was leaving the EDL after encountering a government-supported think-tank called Quilliam, which had “persuaded” him to try to develop a dialogue with progressive Muslims. Two years later he admitted that Quilliam had paid him “thousands of pounds” to quit the EDL.

Every speaker at the FLA rally attacked Islam and refugees, as well as feminists and the #MeToo movement. UKIP leader Gerard Batten and UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge spoke at the DFLA gathering in Victoria Square. There was singing of “We want our country back.”

Across Europe, Islamophobic and far-right forces have grown on the basis of a hatred of migrants and refugees. The FLA is trying to do the same. The importance of the strong anti-fascist opposition turnout cannot be overstated. Stand Up to Racism is determined to build larger protests when the FLA mobilises in the future, and calls on everyone who opposes racism and Islamophobia to join in that crucial effort.

Weyman Bennett, Stand Up To Racism’s co-convenor, told Al Jazeera: “The FLA said they are not racists, but they have invited Anne Marie Walters and other far-right racists.

“They are friends of racists and fascists and have targeted Birmingham because they see it as a Muslim town. We have to stand united against those that seek to divide us.”

In the 2011 Census, 21.8 per cent of the Birmingham population identified themselves as Muslim. This is significantly higher than the average for England and Wales of 4.8 per cent.

Commenting on the events, Maz Saleem, a Birmingham local whose father Mohammed Saleem was stabbed to death on his way home from a mosque in April 2013, called on people to join the counter protest and to stand up against “racism, Islamophobia and division”. “The FLA are trying to portray the entire Muslim community as a terrorist community when, in fact, we are the victims,” Saleem said. In a show of support for the Stand Up To Racism event, several British MPs, including Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmoud, Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill and Birmingham Hall Green MP Roger Godsiff, added their voices to a statement expressing concern over the FLA march. Other signatories to the statement include general-secretaries of several major trade unions, and local councillors, faith and community groups.