October 5, 2009 / 12:14 PM / 11 years ago

Rise of UK far right could lead to poll violence

LONDON (Reuters) - A resurgence of far right groups is likely to fuel abuse, violence and even riots in the run-up to Britain’s next parliamentary elections, community relations experts warn.

A resident walks past a burnt-out car on Waterloo Road in Oldham after riots between police and youths May 27, 2001. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson

In the last few months, Britain has seen disturbances in London and in Birmingham, with police coming under attack after far right protesters clashed with Muslims and anti-fascist groups.

So far the trouble has been minor, with few serious injuries or major damage. But mainstream politicians are worried.

Following trouble outside a mosque in north London, Communities Secretary John Denham warned that far right extremists were using the same tactics as fascist groups before World War Two to provoke British Muslims.

Denham likened the disorder at the mosque to that employed by the black-shirted supporters of the British Union of Fascists who generated fear and violence when they marched though Jewish areas of London’s east end in the 1930s.

Community relations experts fear the situation could deteriorate as Britain heads towards an election due by next June, even raising fears of a repeat of race riots that engulfed towns across northern England in 2001.

“We have got a much bigger and more determined far right than in 2001, which has been emboldened by recent successes,” said Professor Ted Cantle, who led the government review into the 2001 riots, Britain’s worst disturbances in recent times.

“Clearly any community can be provoked and the far right is taking more action, and some of its provocation is nastier and more sophisticated.

“The provocation is serious and it could lead to some forms of disorder,” Cantle, Executive Chairman of the Institute of Community Cohesion, set up by the government following the London bombings in 2005, told Reuters.

FAR-RIGHT POLL SUCCESS

The far right is certainly more popular and high profile than it has been for decades. This summer saw the British National Party (BNP) enjoy its greatest success at the ballot box, winning two seats for the European Parliament.

Although the BNP remains at the fringes of British politics, other extreme groups, such as The English Defence League (EDL) and Casuals United have sprung up promising more direct action.

They emerged after a small group of Muslim militants staged a protest in Luton in March against soldiers returning from Iraq.

While the government sees building better relations with the Muslim community as essential following the 2005 London suicide attacks by four British Islamists, the right-wing groups accuse ministers of pandering to militants.

“The government and police need to decide whether they want to carry on turning a blind eye to killers in our midst, a small minority, or whether they want to listen to the concerns of the ignored majority, and deal with the Jihadists before widespread disorder breaks out,” the Casuals Utd website says.

Critics dismiss the groups as being a small number of racist, former soccer hooligans. But Muhammad Abul Kalam, spokesman for the police advisory body the Muslim Safety Forum (MSF), said there was great concern at the groups’ impact.

“There is a genuine fear that their message is becoming more acceptable to mainstream British indigenous people because of various reasons, including the economic downturn,” he said.

He agreed the rise of the far right combined with tensions generated by the elections could be an explosive combination, leading to serious public disorder.

“It happened in London in Harrow,” he told Reuters, saying Muslims were being incited to react both by the far right and anti-fascist organisations.

“There are certain hot-headed Muslims out there looking to protect their community in a criminal way who want to engage in street fights and demonstrations, and hurl bottles and bricks, and we want to contain that.”

POLICE FEAR “SPECTACULAR”

Earlier this year, a senior counter terrorism officer told an MSF meeting that police feared right-wing extremists could be planning a “spectacular” attack.

The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit, which monitors such issues, said at the moment there was no specific intelligence to suggest extremists were planning any campaign of violence, or to generate trouble before the polls.

But a spokesman added: “Whenever people have strongly held views and express them, there is always going to be risk of public disorder.”

The MSF said in recent months there had been increased reports of attacks on mosques, and Cantle said individual racial hate crimes — such as Muslim women being abused, having their headscarves pulled off, or more serious incidents — would rise.

“Where they (far right groups) are putting out their propaganda, because of elections or because of particular campaigns, then it will stir up hatred and we do see an increase in hate crimes,” he said.

“We may not see a repeat of 2001 where communities go out on to the street and take part in wholesale disturbances and riots, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not having an effect. The tensions do get greatly increased around elections.”

The next flashpoint is expected on October 10 in Manchester, when the EDL holds a march and the Unite Against Fascist organisation stages a counter protest.

“Inevitably if there is any violence and it involves young Muslims that’s going to be headline news,” said Kalam. “We don’t need, and don’t want that.”

Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Keith Weir

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