Why the image of a woman smiling at the EDL went viral

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The image is so perfectly composed it may as well have been staged. In the foreground an EDL member, red and angry. A custodian-helmeted liaison officer intervenes in the conflict. In the background, another EDL member - left arm raised, pointing his thumb behind him – gestures to ‘get out’. And in the foreground, a young woman smiles bemusedly at the angry man before her.”  

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The image is so perfectly composed it may as well have been staged. In the foreground an EDL member, red and angry. A custodian-helmeted liaison officer intervenes in the conflict. In the background, another EDL member - left arm raised, pointing his thumb behind him – gestures to ‘get out’. And in the foreground, a young woman smile bemusedly at the angry man before her.

The photo of Saffiyah Khan confronting EDL member Ian Crossland, went viral since it first appeared after Saturday’s EDL demonstration in Birmingham’s city centre. The Saturday demonstration’s descent into conflict is entirely par for the course when it comes to the EDL. Emerging in 2009, its raison d’etre is the routing of “radical Islam”, its modus operandi the street demonstration. 

EDL members claim the conflict occurred when the minute of silence they were holding for the victims of the recent Westminster attack was interrupted by counter-protesters. As the story unfolded a new version of events emerged: Khan was defending a woman wearing a hijab, later identified as Saira Zafar, who was surrounded and harassed by the crowd. An image from the day shows EDL members thrusting a placard on her head; “Muslim communities”, the sign reads, “stop covering up rape”. 

Saffiyah Khan’s stoicism is reminiscent of an image that went viral in 2016, it was that of Iesha Evans, who, long dress billowing behind her, stood calmly in the middle of a Baton Rouge street as heavily armoured police officers charged at her. Now, we are in a new age of protest and it seems our mascot is that of the insouciant woman. She puts her lipstick on in the reflection of a police shield. As “Fearless Girl” she stares down Wall Street. The aesthetics of protest and the viral nature the image indicates, is a powerful thing.

In this sense the image may have gone viral because of the very simple allegory it tells, that of the power and the beauty of calm, and of equanimity in the face of anger and hatred.

On the other hand however, we must confront the not-so-simple realities of the EDL and the milieu in which it operates. 

The visage of Saffiyah Khan offers a certain vision of the city and the nation: tolerant and super-diverse. Khan was born in Birmingham, with Bosnian and Pakistani roots. Saira Zafar, the woman she defended, is also Birmingham born and bred. It is these women, it is argued who encapsulate the real Birmingham, not the EDL. “Who looks like they have power here”, Birmingham MP Jess Phillips tweeted, “the real Brummy on the left or the EDL who migrated for the day to our city and failed to assimilate?” 

It is the EDL in this formulation that is constituted as an impossible member of the nation. This rendering is not however, made with explicit and direct reference to the movement’s Islamophobia, but rather and in language reminiscent of anti-immigrant sentiment, to the fact of its migration and its refusal to assimilate. Phillips’ tweet, and the EDL’s professed devotion to tolerance and multiculturalism, can be read as a curious role reversal as each discovers the power and utility of the other’s language.

While it has been roundly criticized as anti-Muslim and Islamophobic, and it primarily attracts white members, the EDL describes itself as a color-blind and multicultural movement. These statements have been dismissed as a savvy masking of true sentiments, an exercise in making their message more palatable to the mainstream. 

It’s beyond our purview to assess the validity of members’ beliefs. But whether they are truly held or not, the EDL confounds accepted and common sense notions of the contours of far-right discourse. And in some ways it may not matter whether they are truly held. The very fact of their expression of a devotion to multiculturalism, their departure from traditional nativist or racialist language, can serve as an important legitimating function for potential movement members who may be turned off by stigma attached to previous far-right groups.

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