A growing number of British citizens and local MPs have united to condemn “hatred and intolerance” as a march by the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) takes place against what they call “Islamist extremists” in the UK city of Birmingham.
In a move to oppose Saturday’s march, Stand Up To Racism has organised a counterprotest called the Birmingham United anti-racist event, also in Birmingham, to push a “message of unity and opposition to racism and Islamophobia on the streets of Birmingham”, according to the group’s Facebook page.
The FLA, which describes itself as a “new movement with a new purpose to fight extremism”, was set to stage a rally at 12:00 GMT as thousands of football fans descend on the city for a short walk in commemoration of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings which left 21 people dead.
But the FLA’s calls for “anti-extremist” protests have raised concern among locals and anti-racists who fear the march could be the UK’s biggest ever Islamophobic mobilisation.
A key speaker at the event is anti-Islam activist Anne Marie Waters, who unsuccessfully ran to be the leader of UKIP in 2017.
Waters calls Islam “evil” and has links to an ex-member of the far-right British National party, according to the Guardian.
The group has also hosted several other far-right speakers on its platforms in recent months.
British police have been deployed and step up patrols in the city centre in anticipation of potential violence.
“We have been liaising with organisers to clarify their intentions for some time, and have a detailed plan in place to fulfil our duty to facilitate any peaceful protest,” chief superintendent Danny Long of the West Midlands Police told the Birmingham Live website on Friday.
United against racism
Weyman Bennett, Stand Up To Racism’s co-convenor, told Al Jazeera: “The FLA said they are not racists, but they have invited Anne Marie Walters and other far-right racists.
“They are friends of racists and fascists and have targeted Birmingham because they see it as a Muslim town. We have to stand united against those that seek to divide us.”
In the 2011 Census, 21.8 percent of the Birmingham population identified themselves as Muslim. This is significantly higher than the average for England and Wales of 4.8 percent.
Commenting on the events, Maz Saleem, a Birmingham local whose father Mohammed Saleem was stabbed to death on his way home from a mosque in April 2013, called on people to join the counterprotest and to stand up against “racism, Islamophobia and division”.
“The FLA are trying to portray the entire Muslim community as a terrorist community when, in fact, we are the victims,” Saleem said.
“It’s coming to my dad’s five-year anniversary next month and we haven’t learned any lessons, especially when you inspire such racist ideologies. That’s what this march represents in the heart of my hometown.”
In a show of support for the Stand Up To Racism event, several British MPs, including Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmoud, Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill and Birmingham Hall Green MP Roger Godsiff, added their voices to a statement expressing concern over the FLA march.
“I unreservedly condemn the Football Lads Alliance because it is an organisation seeking to divide our society and to claim to be, in any way, associated with mainstream football supporters is abhorrent,” wrote in a statement on Friday.
Other signatories to the statement include general-secretaries of several major trade unions and local councillors, faith and community groups.
Al Jazeera contacted the FLA for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
Secret Facebook group
Reports last week revealed that the FLA uses a secret Facebook page including violent, racist and misogynistic content as well as posts targeting Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, and Dianne Abbott, UK shadow home secretary and Britain’s first black female MP.
The FLA’s 65,000-strong Facebook group, which is invite-only and monitored by a team of administrators, states the FLA are “not fascist thugs” but includes posts by members calling for Khan to be “hanged” and for Abbott, to be “run over”, reported the Guardian.
There are also posts claiming the Finsbury Park mosque attacker Darren Osborne, who was charged in June last year with “terrorism-related” murder and attempted murder after he was arrested by police following a van attack that mowed down Muslim worshippers, is a “scapegoat” and suggesting he was right to plot to kill UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The findings come after Facebook removed the pages of Britain First, the far-right group, for violating its community standards and sending out anti-Muslim letters to addresses across the country.
John Meighan, who founded the FLA after the London Bridge attack and led a march of thousands of fans through the streets of London last October, insists the group is made up of ordinary supporters opposed to all forms of “extremism”.