LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of a British anti-Islamist group said on Friday his populist protest movement, which critics say represents a new far right in Britain, would form a political party in May.
Stephen Lennon, head of the English Defence League (EDL), said the three-year-old grassroots group wanted to move on from holding street demonstrations to contesting elections.
“The British political anti-Islamist party will be launched in May at our Luton demonstration,” Lennon told Reuters, saying the new body would be called the Freedom Party.
“At the Luton demonstration, the whole country will hear an anti-Islamist political party that gives everyone an option in a non-racist way - the opposite to the British National Party.”
The EDL was formed in response to a protest by a small group of radical Muslims who shouted slogans at British soldiers during a homecoming parade in Luton, to the north of London.
While still a small organisation, as many as 12,000 people have attended the numerous marches and demonstrations the EDL has staged across England since then. More than 31,000 people have given its Facebook website their backing.
Britain’s population is about 62 million.
The EDL gained international attention last July after Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 people in what he said was an international mission to counter Islam, claimed to have had contact with EDL members and leaders.
The EDL has denied any formal links to Breivik and Lennon rejects the description of his group as far-right, arguing that genuine extremists hate him.
“We hate Nazis, we’re anti-Nazi,” he said, emphasising his groups’ support for Jews and Israel. “In England, we’re the only organisation that stands up for the Jewish community.”
However, critics and commentators accuse the EDL of being an acceptable face of a new far right, which was not just opposed to violent Islamism as it says but racially opposed to all Muslims, with members who include former soccer hooligans.
Lennon himself was convicted last year over a street brawl involving soccer fans and was also found guilty of assault during an altercation at an EDL rally.
The group’s rallies have often ended in violent confrontations with anti-fascist organisations.
How successful the party will be is unclear.
The far-right British National Party, a nationalist group which wants an end to immigration and the voluntary repatriation of immigrants, won two seats to the European Parliament in 2009.
“If the BNP got two seats, we’ll get more than two seats,” said Lennon, who added he would not be the new party’s leader.
Other populist anti-Islam parties have enjoyed election successes elsewhere in the European Union in recent years, notably the Dutch Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders.
The issue has become prominent in France’s presidential election after an al Qaeda-inspired Islamist murdered seven people before being shot dead by police on Thursday.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen asserted after the shootings that entire suburbs had been surrendered to Islamist radicals by negligent politicians.
“The problem is militant Islam and the problem’s spreading across Europe like a wildfire,” Lennon said. “Brave people like Marine le Pen and brave people like Geert Wilders are prepared to put their lives on the line.”
Reporting by Michael Holden