Review: Proud and Prejudiced

Picture of Saiful-Islam, leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Luton (an Asian man with a large beard) talking through a car window to Stephen Lennon, a white man, who is the leader of the so-called English Defence League, who is driving.Proud and Prejudiced on Channel 4 (available to watch for another month at the time of writing)

Proud and Prejudiced featured Saiful-Islam, one of the public speakers of the group commonly called Al-Muhajiroun, a “radical Islamic” group which hold noisy and gratuitously offensive demonstrations around the country but particularly in Luton, and “Tommy Robinson”, really Stephen Lennon, the leader of the so-called English Defence League, a group dominated by football hooligans which goes around holding noisy and often violent “demonstrations” outside mosques and in Muslim neighbourhoods. Although both men heavily featured in Stacey Dooley’s programme on BBC3 last week, this one was more heavily focussed on the two men rather than their organisations, and gave much more air-time to Lennon and his point of view, at the cost of investigating his claims. (More: Andy Carrington [1], [2].)

I wonder why the producers on both BBC3 and Channel 4 decided to dredge up this issue now when it has been rather quiet for a number of months and people appear to have been getting on with their lives, at least in Luton. Both the groups concerned are small, unpopular, extremist fringe groups and do not represent either the white working-class or the Muslims in Luton or anywhere else. There have actually been a number of violent disturbances in other parts of the country, including one in Rochdale which included an attack on a Muslim-run (or at least Asian-run) takeaway and in which the youths chanted “EDL” as they were dispersed by the police (Islamophobia Watch has details of related disturbances in Glasgow and Hyde (in Greater Manchester) in the last weekend alone.

Despite purporting to be about two extremists who both call Luton home, much more exposure was given to Lennon, perhaps because he agreed to be interviewed; Saiful-Islam’s appearances were mostly in his group, either at press conferences or demonstrations. It is perhaps understandable given that many Muslims are suspicious of the media, believing that they will be made to look like fools or more extreme than they are, and one recalls the “Tottenham Ayatollah” documentary in which Jon Ronson followed Al-Muhajiroun’s then-leader, Omar Bakri Mohammed, around and made him look like a buffoon (the whole thing is on Google Video here and a later video by the same author can be viewed here). Lennon, on the other hand, was very keen to get his message out and portray himself as an anti-racist who is battling against “Muslim extremism”. Thus, we hear how he joined the BNP for a year, but left (he says) because they refused to admit non-whites (his daughter is black), how other minorities in Luton integrate (such as at his multicultural musical event at a pub) except for the Muslims, and how he tried to “unite” the EDL when a group of his fellow hooligans from up north forged links with the National Front, a far-right splinter party, by presenting a Sikh EDL activist, Guramit Singh, but that event led to a punch-up in which he ended up being charged with assault.

The programme did not seriously question Lennon’s claim that he was a campaigner against Muslim extremism who was struggling to keep his movement “pure” of elements that were simply general racists. There have been many examples of violent movements led by people who opposed violence in public but supported or encouraged it behind the scenes. We can accept that Lennon himself is not an anti-Black racist, but we also know that he allowed his campaign against “Muslim extremism” to rapidly give way to one against Islam itself — his own rhetoric is full of attacks on Shari’ah law and on Muslims in general, and the Muslims of Luton in particular — and that he certainly does not object to his movement being full of violent hooligans. His group’s demonstrations always have to be heavily policed and the numbers of police often outnumber the demonstrators as they would smash up shops or other property (or people) otherwise; meanwhile, Al-Muhajiroun’s demonstrations never consist of anything more than shouting slogans, offensive though they may be.

Although it did have a brief interview with a local imam who said that Saiful-Islam does not have any proper Islamic theological training, it did not feature local Muslims’ efforts to campaign against al-Muhajiroun, particularly after a mosque was firebombed shortly after the Anglian regiment demonstration in 2009 — local “salafis” actually confronted the Muhajiroun on the streets after this and were reported to have shut their stall down, although they appear to be back, by the look of things. There is an article here by the film-maker Masood Khan about this and other Muslim efforts against those extremists, and his films expose the lie that Muslims do nothing to stop them (you can view them all by following the link):

The reality is that Muslims have been working against the extremists in the their community way before 7/7 or even 9/11. It is the reason why the likes of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri, the now exiled leader of al-Muhijiroun, were shunned by the Muslims up and down the country way before they became the known faces of Islamic extremism. It is also why their followers number in the hundreds rather than in the hundred of thousands. But nobody talks or writes about that.

… Each film deals with Muslims from different backgrounds, but each with their own approach to fighting extremism. The first film in the series, The Struggle Within, looks at Luton Muslims Farasat latif and Abdur Rehman, who follow the orthodox Salafi school of thought. Salifis are often derided in the press as extremist nut-jobs. But while they dress the same and have beards, there the similarity ends. For almost the last 20 years they have been trying to persuade Muslims not to get involved with groups like al-Muhajiroun, who they believe distort Islam.

Despite giving a lot more time to Lennon, the programme made it obvious that he was a violent man and a bigot and, quite possibly, a duplicitous individual who barely hides his violent intentions: he chose to mobilise football “casuals”, i.e. hooligans, to campaign against a fictitious take-over by a religious minority. It says he took the name of a well-known Luton Town hooligan; it does not even attempt to investigate what links his Luton group really has with groups of hooligans who go under the EDL banner elsewhere. (His group were called United Peoples of Luton until other groups around the country jumped on the bandwagon.) The programme did not put this question to him. Given that Saiful-Islam’s group have been banned every time they re-form for no more than causing offence (which would have mostly gone unnoticed had their antics not been reported in the press), never having caused the amount of disruption the EDL have, it is a mystery why they have not been banned as they are an inherently violent organisation.

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