THE far right, anti-Islamic Scottish Defence League is about to march in Edinburgh. But just how much support do they have?
FOR a man who claims to represent a silent majority, he is coy about being seen and heard. Don refuses to meet in person, talking only over a mobile phone and answering questions by e-mail. The self-styled leader of the Scottish Defence League (SDL) is being ultra cautious. Given the incendiary nature of his views, and the depth of anger they provoke, perhaps this is not surprising.
Next weekend, the embryonic SDL, whose stated aim is to oppose the spread of militant Islam and Sharia Law, will hold its second event in Scotland, when supporters of the British nationalist movement descend on Edinburgh for a demonstration.
The event in the capital follows a protest in Glasgow last November, which descended into violence when balaclava-clad SDL supporters clashed violently with anti-racism marchers. Five arrests were made and part of the city centre was brought to a standstill.
This Saturday, the SDL will again target Scotland, which it believes is a fertile recruiting ground among young, white males. Don, who has an English accent, claimed the SDL had more than 800 members and would mobilise to fight their cause.
One target would be radical Muslim preachers, who were "actively spreading hatred within Scotland", he said. "The SDL started in 2009 because we could see the dangers caused by militant Islamic activity and we could see areas becoming Muslim. We have evidence provided by Muslims, who have spoken to us as they are scared of these people. We believe there should only be one community and not areas separated by religious or cultural differences."
Opponents, of which there are many, believe the SDL, despite its protestations, is indistinguishable from the openly fascist British National Party and that many of its so-called recruits come from a background of football casuals violence. Merchandise on sale to promote the movement includes clothes and badges emblazoned with slogans such as "Ban the Burqa" and "No Surrender".
Another badge available over the internet says "Asylum – Don't Unpack You're Going Back", while one of the organisation's websites hosts a video of Enoch Powell giving his infamous 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech.
But while the SDL embraces the language of the far right, it insists it is a multi-racial, peaceful protest organisation.
Another senior SDL supporter, who uses the moniker "Tony Mowbray" – obviously not his real name but some sort of football joke – declined to meet but agreed to answer questions by e-mail. He, too, denied the group had links to extremists.
He said he was a 40-year-old married man from Glasgow who comes from a professional civil engineering and management background and that he became involved with the English Defence League (EDL) after an incident involving his son.
"It (the story] involves Strathclyde Police, my ten-year-old son and a much older Pakistani kid who was bullying and hitting him. There were lies and false accusations and I had to watch a 6'4" Strathclyde Police officer tower over my 4'2" son and read him his rights. My son was beaten and called 'white trash'.
"This led me to embark on my own personal research and this is what led me to the EDL. When I started my research, it was based primarily on false accusations from people who use the race card to their advantage. As I read deeper, my research progressed down a very different and altogether more troubling path towards Jihad and Islamisation, " he said.
The man, who says he liaises directly with EDL leaders in London, also denied the movement had links to the far right and said the SDL had been demonised by the press. He said he attended the demonstration in Glasgow to prepare a report for the national leadership and was pushing for a change in strategy.
"Targeted demos, for example, rather than demonstrating in faceless city centres," he said. "I'm pushing for a change and/or a splinter cell which will target specific locations like the BBC studios. Why are they reporting false news? And the Saudi Embassy. Why is it funding UK mosques and education while perpetrating the most appalling religious intolerance and human rights violations on the earth today?"
The violence at the SDL protest in Glasgow followed major disorder in English cities, where the EDL has taken to the streets 20 times to protest against militant Islam. More than 200 people have been arrested at EDL protests, which began last summer after soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment were verbally abused by radical Islamists as they paraded through Luton after a tour of Afghanistan. Anti-fascist counter-demonstrators have been among those detained.
The SDL is an off-shoot of the EDL, as are the Welsh and Ulster Defence Leagues, and while they have different leaders in a fluid, ad-hoc structure, they work closely together. The EDL/SDL, despite stressing its "peaceful movement" mantra since its inception, has been roundly condemned for its antagonistic tactics.
John Denham MP, the UK Communities Secretary, has compared them to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists who ran amok in the 1930s, while Unite Against Fascism has accused the SDL of being intent on inflaming racial tensions.
Deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who spoke at the counter-protest in Glasgow, said: "To the BNP, to the Scottish Defence League, to the English Defence League, to any racist defence league, you are not welcome in Glasgow. You are not welcome anywhere in Scotland."
In England, the movement is expanding. About 1,500 supporters attended a recent EDL protest in Stoke-on-Trent, by far the largest gathering to date. Some 600 police officers were on duty, violence erupted and 17 people were arrested. Four policemen were injured.
Football hooligans from Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers fought each other, despite being fellow EDL supporters, and a video on YouTube showed vehicles being attacked and a police officer being kicked by a mob after he fell to the ground. Claims the SDL is intimately linked to gangs of soccer casuals in Scotland are hard to confirm. Don disputed allegations by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight that football hooligans were pivotal to the formation of the SDL, as they have been to the EDL and WDL.
Yet Mickey Smith, a member of the WDL and frontman of an umbrella group of hooligans called Casuals United, said some fans of Rangers were pre-eminent in setting up the Scottish group. When Casuals United emerged last summer to protest against radical Islam around the same time as the EDL, hooligan gangs across Britain set up a Casuals United Facebook page, which listed the clubs they followed. Rangers were the only Scottish team listed.
Later, after complaints by football clubs over the use of their club crests on the Facebook page, the firms morphed into EDL "divisions" using names such as London, Midlands and Scotland.
As the EDL gains support across the UK, Muslims have been targeted in unprovoked attacks. In the worst incident, a mob of 30 white and black youths is said to have surrounded Asian students near City University in central London and attacked them with metal poles, bricks and sticks while shouting racist abuse. Three people – two students and a passer-by who tried to intervene – were stabbed.
Neo-Nazi groups such as the British Freedom Fighters and Combat 18 have been attending rallies and their members later posted videos of themselves on the internet. Tinderbox cities such as Bradford and Oldham – places that witnessed race riots in 2001 – are stated EDL targets for 2010, and there is growing concern over the possibility of serious civil disorder.
In response to these fears, the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, a countrywide police team set up to combat domestic extremism, has been investigating the EDL. It is hard to predict how many people will attend the SDL rally in Edinburgh, but Lothian and Borders Police said plans were in place after discussions with other UK forces. Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, the officer in overall command of the operation, said no permission had been sought by the SDL for its event.
"We are making efforts to engage with the SDL. There will also be a counter-rally and march by the Scotland United group, for which permission has been granted by City of Edinburgh Council. We are working closely with the organisers of the Scotland United march and the city council to ensure the march passes off peacefully. Should any problems arise, then we will respond in a robust manner to ensure that order is maintained and the rule of law upheld."
Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance hopes to disrupt the SDL's usual tactics and has written to some 100 pubs in the city, asking them to ban the SDL from their premises. Football grounds have also been targeted, with supporters being leafleted and asked not to support the SDL.
Last week, posters from the Unite Against Fascism group, protesting about the SDL plans and with slogans such as "Nazis not welcome here", appeared around the main university areas and across the south of the city.
City councillors urged restraint on both sides. Conservative Cameron Rose said: "If the Scottish Defence League do turn up, that is a matter for the police to take action. The prospect of Unite Against Fascism creating a confrontation will simply make the situation more complex for the police, who are the proper authorities to deal with public order."
Nina Giles, the director of Edinburgh & Lothians Racial Equality Council, said the SDL was a violent, extremist group, and called for its demonstration to be halted. "Any individual that holds that kind of hatred towards any group is not healthy. If the march does go ahead, it's quite worrying that these type of views would be given a platform." A spokesman for Scotland United said: "It is time to stand up for multicultural Scotland."