The rise of right-wing extremism is never far from the headlines at present. The latest polling success by populist radical right parties in such diverse contexts as Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands in the past two years demonstrates a significant shift to the right in European politics. Added to this, there have been increasing concerns about right-wing extremist actors committing acts of terroristic violence – with prominent concrete examples including Anders Behring Breivik, Darren Osborne and the National Social Underground – as well as the impact of far right street demonstrations on minority communities.
My PhD and post-PhD research has been aimed at examining how policy-makers have tried to deal with the fallout of far right protests when they come to town. This has involved in-depth interviews with politicians, the police and behind-the-scenes council officials in the UK in such diverse contexts as Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, Luton and Tower Hamlets, to gain an understanding of the approaches and practical steps they’ve taken concerning groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First. In November last year, these findings were published with Routledge as a book. While most policymakers I talked to advocated excluding such forms of protest, offering a rich variety of rationales for this, a handful proposed something more radical – and, in my view, more Christian.
One thing that I was keen to argue for in the book is a more inclusionary turn in far right responses. While it is easy to call for exclusion of such voices from the public space, I feel it is necessary to engage with the drivers – like issues of diversity, social polarisation and political representation – that animate their activism in the first place. As democrats, we want to be treating the causes rather than the symptoms and making sure that greater education about diversity, intergroup contact, and engagement with marginalised people groups helps tackle the drivers of such activism.
One aspect of the responses which I only cover in passing in the book is the role of Christian clergy or laity in trying to disrupt the activism of these groups. I did however interview and encounter Christians who saw it their duty to try and engage pastorally both with activists from the EDL and Britain First and also to reach out to those affected by their activism. In my LifeMatters talk on Friday 22 February, I will be focusing in particular on the sustained responses by Reverend Alan Green in Tower Hamlets and Peter Adams of St Mary’s church in Luton, who have tried to resist groups intent on ‘invading mosques’ and to engage in dialogue to try and dissuade such groups from protesting in their localities in the first place.
While most of us will not be engaged in Christian anti-fascist activism, I think there are several ways that Christians and the Church can respond to the far right at this present time. The first is to understand that a lot of far right groups thrive off feelings of marginalisation and a lack of belonging and place – things that can be offered by the Church. Indeed, secularisation in the UK and other Western democracies has perhaps exacerbated this, reducing the sense of community in places experiencing industrial decline and rapid forms of demographic transformation. The second way to respond is to try and move away from the identity politics that can so easily capture our thinking as an ‘embattled minority’ or ‘victimised’ faith community. Such small-mindedness is not helpful if we want to engage with the culture ‘out there’ and plays into the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative that far right groups try to propagate. Finally and relatedly, we need to get better at engaging in cross-community dialogue that breaks down tendencies towards social polarisation and isolationism. This involves understanding better and engaging with other faith communities in order to reduce societal tensions that can so easily be exacerbated by far right groups.
In conclusion then, while the majority of us might not engage in full time political activism, we can do our part as Christians in reducing the drivers of far right politics in our everyday lives. Through engaging with the marginalised, eschewing identity politics and understanding other faith communities better, we help better fulfil the gospel mandate of ‘loving our neighbour’ and looking out for the ‘least, the last and the lost’. By doing this, we also stifle the need for division and hatred – reducing the prejudicial and populist barbs that give rise to the far right in the first place.
Dr William Allchorn is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds and Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. He is an expert on anti-Islamic radical right social movements in the UK and Western Europe. His book Anti-Islamic Protest in the UK: Policy Responses to the Far Right is out now with Routledge.