The far-right nationalist group Britain First has restarted its campaign of what it calls “Christian Patrols” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, drawing widespread condemnation for what experts have described as a desperate push for relevance from a dying organisation.
A video posted to the Britain First Facebook page showed a number of the group’s activists driving through east London in an ex-army issue Land Rover and declaring that they are making “our streets safe for our people”.
Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, has condemned the display of “hatred and intolerance” that took place in her constituency on Friday night.
Footage of the “patrol” showed the self-proclaimed “street defence” organisation’s chairman Paul Golding and its former parliamentary candidate Jayda Fransen approaching people on the street in Brick Lane and Whitechapel with leaflets calling for the banning of mosques and niqabs.
The leaflets claimed that “Muslim patrols are operating in this area confiscating alcohol and harassing women”, and activists can be seen describing the area they were moving through as “occupied London”.
The footage, which show Golding declaring that their leaflets are “pretty provocative to give out in a Muslim-occupied area”, ultimately ends with a large police presence being called in to prevent violent clashes between the group’s activists and local residents.
It is the first “patrol” carried out by Britain First in around six months, and comes after Government ministers issued a letter to Muslim leaders saying they needed to explain how Islam “can be part of British identity” following terror attacks across northern France that killed 17 people.
Matthew Collins, an expert with the campaign group Hope Not Hate who has followed Britain First’s progress for a number of years, said its revival of “Christian Patrols” had the potential to provoke a violent backlash – and that members of the public could well get caught in the crossfire.
He said the group had been “struggling” for both funding and numbers on the ground since its major backer removed his support in the summer, and that they had “no choice” but to bring back the so-called patrols in a last-ditch attempt to attract numbers.
“Britain First’s dream is that they believe a religious war is coming, and lots joined up thinking they’d be part of this bible bashing defence force,” he said.
“It’s turned into a T-shirt making, money-grabbing enterprise – but Golding has set the wheels in motion now and people will react violently.
“He kids people into thinking he is targeting Al-Qaeda, when really he’s winding up ordinary members of the Muslim community – and it will be him that pays the price.
“There’s potential for a backlash, and Britain First will be the target – but anyone could also be a victim of it. He’s putting himself and members of the public at extreme risk.”
Local Labour MP Ms Ali told The Independent: “Time and again, people in the East End have come together to reject hatred and intolerance.
“The divisive rhetoric of fringe groups such as ‘Britain First’ has no place in our East End, the proud home to one of the most vibrant and diverse communities in the UK.”
Steve Rose, from the interfaith thinktank Faith Matters, said the relaunch almost a year on from the first “Christian Patrols” and the threat of more around the country had “become an ongoing joke” in their attempts to provoke ordinary Muslims.
“Hints that patrols also took place in other parts of the country demonstrate their opportunism,” he said. “Often, far-right groups are galvanised by trigger events such as the atrocities in Paris in an effort to divide and undermine cohesion when Muslim communities feel on edge.
“This renewed tactic deserves wide condemnation.”
In a brief statement issued on behalf of Tower Hamlets Police, the Met said it was “made aware of a number of people distributing leaflets in the Brick Lane area” on Friday 16 January.
“Officers from Tower Hamlets attended and spoke with the participants,” the statement said, adding that no arrests were made and that the activists left the area “a short time later”.