For the past four months the Guardian has joined English Defence League demonstrations, witnessing its growing popularity, from protests attracting just a few hundred hardcore activists at the end of last year to rallies and marches which are bringing thousands of people on to the street – and into direct conflict with the police and local Muslim communities.
This article was prepared by the Islam in Europe blog - islamineurope.blogspot.com
The EDL plans to step up its campaign in coming weeks, culminating in marches through some of the UK's most high-profile Muslim communities, raising the spectre of widespread unrest.
With the British National party beset by infighting and recriminations after its poor showing in last month's local and national elections, the UK is facing the prospect of rightwing activists turning away from the ballot box and back to the street for the first time in three decades.
The English Defence League sprang up in Luton last year in reaction to a demonstration by a small extreme Islamist group during a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Since then this chaotic organisation – based largely around existing football groups and hooligan networks – has mobilised thousands of people against what it terms "Islamic extremism".
In telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings, members of the EDL's secretive leadership team repeatedly told the Guardian that the group is not racist and just wants to "peacefully protest against militant Islam".
But at each demonstration I attended while making an undercover film for the Guardian's investigative film unit, Guardian Films, I was confronted by casual – often brutal – racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence.
As we moved outside for the EDL protest – during which supporters became involved in violent clashes with the police – a woman asked me for a donation to support the "heroes coming back injured from Afghanistan". I put a pound in the bucket. "Thanks love," she said. "They go over there and fight for this country and then come back to be faced with these Pakis everywhere." She paused, before adding: "But to be honest it is the niggers I can't stand."
This kind of casual racism is not hard to find on EDL demonstrations. The Guardian has also identified a number of known rightwing extremists who are taking an interest the movement – from convicted football hooligans to members of violent rightwing splinter groups. The EDL says it is doing what it can to keep them away but acknowledged their influence.
Senior figures in the coalition government were briefed on the threat posed by EDL marches this week. Tomorrow up to 2,000 EDL supporters are expected to descend on Newcastle for its latest protest.
MPs said the group's decision to target some of the UK's most prominent Muslim communities was a blatant attempt to provoke mayhem and disorder. "This group has no positive agenda," said the Bradford South MP, Gerry Sutcliffe. "It is an agenda of hate that is designed to divide people and communities. We support legitimate protest but this is not legitimate, it is designed to stir up trouble. The people of Bradford will want no part of it.