The English Volunteer Force (EVF) has applied to stage a demonstration in Croydon on 27th July.
On their website, they describe themselves as “patriotic street resistance that predominantly stands against Islam”. It goes without saying that there is nothing remotely patriotic about them. Britain has long stood for the rule of law and for religious tolerance; the EVF don’t believe in such values. In fact, they have much in common with those responsible for the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich a couple of months ago – like Adebolajo and Adebowale, they don’t believe that people of different faiths can live in peace alongside each other.
Most people in Croydon know better. People from all over the world have chosen to make their home here. They have set up businesses, creating jobs for others; they work in our public services; they help run our charities and community groups; and they make a huge contribution to the cultural life of the town. Drive around the borough and you will pass churches old and new, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurdwaras, all existing peacefully side by side. Our daily life – our interaction with colleagues at work, with our neighbours, with fellow parents at the school gate – is proof that the EVF are wrong.
But in a democracy people have a right to be wrong. They have a right to demonstrate. They have a right, so long as they are not inciting violence, to offend us with their views. Take away that right – even from people whose views we detest – and we undermine the values we seek to uphold.
What people do not have a right to do, however, is to threaten public order, to intimidate minority groups or those seeking to access public services. The EVF’s original request was for a march from the headquarters of the UK Border Agency at Lunar House on Wellesley Road to Croydon Mosque on London Road. Why should those going to the mosque for prayers, those who work at Lunar House or those who have come to this country fleeing persecution have to put up with the EVF’s bile? Along with others, I lobbied the police to refuse permission for this march and instead to allow a static protest behind Lunar House. That seemed to me to strike the right balance between the freedom to demonstrate and the need to maintain public order and I am pleased to see that is the decision the police have come to.
Of course I’d rather the demonstration wasn’t taking place at all. I despise prejudice in all its forms. But one of the things that makes this country still one of the best places in the world to live is that we are free – free to be who we choose to be, to believe what we choose to believe. There are still far too few countries in the world where that is true. And that freedom must be continually defended, even if it is sometimes exercised in ways we don’t like.
So let the EVF come to Croydon on 27th July. Let them show the world what unpleasant people they are. But let’s not give them the oxygen of publicity by seeking to confront them. Instead, let’s commit ourselves to showing in word and deed that the extremists are wrong, that people of different faiths, different backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony, that in the 21st Century our diversity is not a weakness but one of our greatest strengths.
This post first appeared on The Croydon Citizen website.