EARLIER this year the world was left in shock as one man was charged with the mass murder of 93 people, many teenagers, in Oslo and Utoya Island in the name of a right-wing ideology.
As people have struggled to understand why the 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik may have committed the atrocity, alleged links between Breivik and The English Defence League (EDL) have surfaced.
The EDL, a far-right street protest movement which opposes what it perceives as the spread of ‘Islamism,’ began just 35 miles away from here, in Luton in March 2009, latching onto a football firm already in the town.
But it is in Northampton that pivotal research is being carried out in a bid to understand the mentality of this organisation.
Last week a major report was launched by the University of Northampton on ‘Britain’s New Far-Right Social Movement’, charting the rise, ideology, structure and development of the EDL and bringing together international leading experts in the field to Northampton.
“For some 30 months the English Defence League has brought disorder, violence and racism in its wake.
“It has stretched police budgets and strained cohesion amongst and between British communities,” says Matthew Feldman, director of the University’s Radicalism, New Media and Research Group.
“A lot of key organisations do great work actively dealing with these problems in the security service and policing, what we want to do is bring all the thinking on this together.”
As well as publishing the largest report on the EDL to date, the university’s school of social science, the radicalism and new media research group is an initiative that will generate a series of focused research projects on the subject, particularly on the use of social media.
Whereas it has long been recognised that sites like Facebook and Twitter can be harnessed to effectively communicate, as shown in the uprisings in the Middle East earlier this year.
The school is also looking at how these social media sites are being used to aid extremism - Breivik had both a Facebook and Twitter account.
“The thing with the internet is that it is like anything, it can be used for good or evil,” says Dr Feldman.
“We now know that a man can make weapons of mass destruction with a credit card and a modem.
“Its use was predominantly a right-wing phenomena to begin with but it has been used by Islamists.
“The first blogs were published in 2004, and in a sense in 1995 before most of us knew the internet existed right wing extremists were using it, an ex-KK guy set up Stormfront (a white nationalist group) on the internet then.
“That’s been going for 15 years now and has more than 150,000 members, the far right has been ahead of the centre in terms of the internet.
“The internet and social media is so new in so many ways that we still have a lot of key work to do to establish patterns in how extremists use it.
“We don’t have any answers to questions like if they start by putting up a post and then when they are going to attack or kill, do they suddenly go silent on the internet, or do they become more blustery and post more before they are going to attack.
“Can we learn anything from what they are thinking and what they do next, from the way they use social media?
“The EDL is approached as a social movement, driven by an alliance of football hooliganism, nationalism, xenophobia, street politics – collectively organised and disseminated from the leadership to grass-roots supporters via new media.”
Dr Feldman says that there is evidence to suggest that the EDL’s anti-Muslim politics has a wider presence in British society than the tens of thousands of ‘followers’ registered on its Facebook site.
That said he does not wish to scare.
“All the barbarians are not at the gate, for instance the BNP always loses out to the Monster Raving Looney Party,” he said.
“There is the BNP Northants Patriot, and EDL suggestion in Northamptonshire, but it is a pretty cohesive community here, that rejects all forms of extremism and I think that’s very reassuring, which is why we feel very at home in our community here.
“It is always difficult to prove if there is or isn’t far right activity anywhere, but the thing the internet does is to leave traces and IP addresses.
“It is a slow and meticulous process trying to tailgate them but there are traces.”
Dr Paul Jackson, lead author on the report, and also of the university research team, said: “The BNP has fiddled with new media, it has used websites, which may take news from other news sites, and given them its own slant, they have blogged, the EDL has been more savvy.
“Facebook can help connect them because someone puts something on Facebook and someone might respond to them. They are able to share information and build up a sense of community.
“I don’t think we can say this isn’t in Northampton, nowhere is immune from the message of anti-Muslim attitudes.
“I don’t think anywhere should see that it isn’t there because there are no major demonstrations, there will be some people in Northampton who agree with the views of the EDL but may also feel they are too violent to support them.
“We have tried with the report to get a clear message of what the new far right is, what their ideology is and where to place them.
“The EDL is a new form of far right organisation that has moved away from Neo-Nazism and anti-Semitic agendas, which is Islamophobic by nature.
“We don’t want to overstate the problem but there is a significant problem there.
“We want to have more of a debate about it and see it taken up at a political level.”
The report has been passed onto relevant members policy makers, one of those invited to read the report was Northampton North MP Michael Ellis, who wrote its foreword.
“I’m really pleased that the University of Northampton is at the forefront of this important research that is increasingly important, nationally and internationally.
“Extremism of any kind is a threat to our country and to our way of life and we need to counter the abhorrent practices of extremism.
“I am a member of the Home Office’s Select Committee, there are extremists on both sides and I will be keeping my eye on it in my work on the Home Affairs committee.”
To read the report visit: www.radicalism-new-media.org.
“We do have good communities”
THE Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council works to support any victims of discrimination in the county, as well as offering support to victims of hate crimes and helping to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Its chief executive Anjona Roy offered her insights on the EDL.
“We have on occasion reported information about the EDL to the police in Northamptonshire.
“The EDL is not an organisation in the way that most people see, it is very chaotic in the way it is organised.
“It is very much based on what the far right are involved in, in a particular area.
“When they propose something you may get people joining in who may not see themselves as part of it but think they are just joining in at that time.
“It is violent tribal behaviour.
“They are not necessarily all following the ideology but taking the opportunity to be involved.
“It is also a very different kind of far right than other far right groups, who often try to present themselves as respectable and try to operate within the political mainstream.
“It is very clear about who their enemies are. It is very focused on Islam, and at one level they have become more focused than any other far right group.”
She has welcomed the news that it is an area the university is investigating.
“Any research that creates a body of evidence that looks at creating more cohesive communities, that’s got to be welcomed. I think it actually says a lot for the town that its academics see this as an important issue,” she said.
“Approaches to dealing with it are different in different parts of the country, and a more consistent approach is needed.
“I think on balance we do have good communities here.
“It takes only one bad incident and someone going off the rails in a community, like we have seen in Oslo, to change the situation.
“The majority of people in this town get on well together and in a nutshell on the whole our organisation gets it right.”