The York newspaper The Press reported yesterday that the "Islamia Village" event that was due to be held near the city at Thorpe Underwood Estate over the bank holiday weekend had been called off at the last minute after the estate's Trustees cancelled the booking.
This decision followed an extended campaign against Islamia Village, based on the claim that it would be hosting extremist preachers. The Islamophobic blog Harry's Place, which had initiated the campaign, immediately posted a piece yesterday afternoon claiming victory for itself and its supporters.
The obvious question that arises is – why was Islamia Village called off so late in the day? After all, Harry's Place took up the issue well over a month ago, back on 13 July, when it crossposted a piece from the Islamic Far-Right in Britain blog condemning the event. What changed over the past few days?
Yesterday the Islamia Village organisers issued a statement pointing out that groups including the English Defence League had been demanding for some time that the booking should be cancelled. However: "The campaign had intensified at the beginning of the week, whereby such groups had threatened to cause violence at this weekend's event. Threats of burning down the venue with the people in it have also been made publicly by some supporters of this campaign."
A series of comments posted at HP by a spokesperson for the Trustees of Thorpe Underwood Estate outlining the reasoning that led them to cancel the event sheds further light on this.
Up until this week, it seems, all was proceeding well. According to the Trustees' spokesperson: "This booking WAS checked out with ALL the relevant Government bodies possible and opinion sought as to whether the booking should have been refused. Rather than say, suggest or even infer that perhaps it would be sensible to say 'no', the responses were given as 'positive to proceed'."
The Trustees were not necessarily insisting on banning individuals because of what they were alleged to have said in the past but asked for assurances that speakers would not be engaging in hate speech at Islamia Village. The event organisers, for their part, had made it clear that they were prepared to compromise over the question of speakers and offer the required assurances. The Trustees' spokesperson emphasised that "the event was NOT cancelled because the organisers would not agree to what was being asked of them".
The spokesperson confirmed the organisers' account of the prospect of far-right violence, stating that "the threat to 'burn the buildings down with everyone in them' was made in a 'comment' on a 'Casuals Unlimted' [sic] blog site page". The Casuals (who operate as a particularly thuggish faction within the EDL) had also announced that they would be holding a protest at the event, along with other far-right groupings such as the National Front, Combined ex Forces and the Infidels (the latter two organisations being neo-Nazi offshoots from the EDL), with all the potential for violent confrontation that this implied.
The Trustees' spokesperson stated that: "Safety of those attending probably accounted for 80% of the decision making process.... There was a point when we were almost there but other intelligence information received from Police meant we moved to cancellation." Further, by way of clarification: "The intelligence we received suggested those attending, not those organising, were at risk – given to us as 'clear and present threat'."
Another factor that "made the Trustees believe they had come to the end of the line in attempting to host a non-controversial event that would have been safe for all concerned attending" was that Queen Ethelburga's College on the Thorpe Underwood Estate was being targeted by campaigners:
"This event was nothing to do with Queen Ethelburga's College in any way. Regretably within the most recent 72 hours, the focus seemed to be intent on saying this was an event AT Queen Ethelburga's. It was not. Queen Ethelburga's has 1100 pupils from over 45 different Countries and is multi-cultural in EVERY sense of the word. The Trustees of the Estate were very aware that intense bad publicity for an event THEY were hosting would damage the College unfairly. This was another reason the event was cancelled."
Not that this factor was separable from the issue of far-right violence and intimidation. The Yorkshire-based Nationalist Correspondant blog reported that the NF, CxF, Infidels and other fascist groups had all been harassing Queen Ethelburga's with emails and phone calls, threatening that "a massive protest would be held as close to the school as possible" if the Islamia Village event went ahead. In addition to this, "a contingent from Cxf, and the Infidels went to the Principles [sic] house on Wednesday night to have a 'face to face'."
Needless to say, the fascists are jubilant at their success in depriving hundreds of Muslim families of their anticipated weekend at Islamia Village, and self-congratulatory posts have appeared on far-right sites across the internet (see for example here, here, here and here). So much for HP's stupid assertion that "anti-Muslim hooligans ... will not, on this occasion at least, be claiming a victory for themselves on the back of others' hard work". Of course, given that the fascist campaign against Islamia Village was based entirely on material provided by HP and the Islamic Far-Right in Britain blog (see for example here and here), you can understand why they might be in a state of denial over this.
You may have the feeling that we've been through all this before, and indeed we have. HP and its friends conducted the same sort of inflammatory campaign against a Muslim event that was due to be held at the Connaught Rooms in London in June. Here, again, it was the threat of far-right violence that was the primary factor in getting the booking cancelled.
Any responsible organisation would have concluded that questions about the alleged extremist views of speakers at Islamic events should in future be raised in a way that avoids fuelling violent anti-Muslim racism. Rather than learn any lessons from this earlier debacle, however, HP and its associates responded by denying any blame and lashing out against Islamophobia Watch because we had exposed their role in inciting fascist thuggery.
We would hardly expect anything else from Harry's Place, a notorious extremist blog whose politics may be gauged by the fact that its comments section has for years been infested with racists while one of its leading contributors happily endorses terrorist attacks on Iranian civilians. However, the HP/IFRB campaign was also supported by Hope Not Hate whose attack on Islamia Village was itself crossposted at Harry's Place.
As we have seen, the result of this campaign has been to give a boost to the Islamophobic far right, who were becoming increasingly demoralised by the decline in support for their anti-Muslim street protests. It has led to death threats against the Muslim families who would have attended the Islamia Village event and the intimidation of people at the venue where it was to be held. An organisation like Hope Not Hate whose central aim is to combat the far right should know better.
Update: The following response from Thorpe Underwood Estate to a complaint about the cancellation of Islamia Village has been posted on the Islamic Awakening forum:
We regret too that this event was cancelled.
At all times we have been willing to negotiate, and discuss various aspects of this booking that was concerning others, with the organisers, and also with those from "outside" who expressed grave concerns.
All our meetings and discussions with the organisers were good, and agreement was either reached, or virtually reached, in most areas.
As a result of that, we kept resisting the constant, and sometimes abusive, threatening and vitriolic, arguments being piled upon us in huge quantities. In the space of just 48 hours, we went from Special Branch Police Officers suggesting to us; there may be a demonstration, but frankly it is quite possible no one will turn up, to perhaps 40 to 50 will turn up, to it is now looking like many hundreds will turn up.
We were then told as late as midday yesterday, that if we have gone from nothing to several hundred in 48 hours, where will we be in the end, with 48 hours still to go to the planned protest?
One person had suggested burning all our buildings with all the Muslims in them - this and several other specific threats of violence and intimidation are now being investigated by the Police and arrests may follow.
Still we held to the belief that the event could continue with Police safeguarding and that there would be nothing said by the speakers, that other non-Muslims could construe, as "hateful, threatening or proposing violence".
The final deciding factor was when it then became evident there was a belief that up to 50 or more, violent anti-Muslim type thugs, may have infiltrated the booking system.
They would thus be allowed legitimate access into the Estate to reside within the same boarding and sleeping accommodation and other parts of the venues, as would come our genuine guests.
They would then cause anything from public disorder to actual physical bodily harm, from within the venue, to the guests.
Whereas there are some strong looking Muslim men who would have been reasonably capable of defending themselves, that could not be said of women and children.
As a result of concern for the actual safety of those genuine Muslims attending, we no longer felt the risk was "manageable".
The Police confirmed to us that their response to this threat from inside, could only ever be, re-active not pro-active.
The Estate, upon making the regrettable decision to cancel the event, then did an immediate refund in full, to the penny, of all monies we had been paid by the organisers, back to them.
Everyone has lost out in this despicable affair. You have lost out, the organisers have suffered financially as they had invested much considerable time and money, and we as an Estate have lost out, as we too invested time and money in preparing, plus hosting up to 60 pre-event organisers, plus providing all the facilities and numerous phone lines and calls, all at no expense, to notify the hundreds of people of the cancellation. Even now we are caring, in a compassionate and sympathetic way, providing necessary sustenance, and other facilities, for those who may turn up, having not been aware of the cancellation. In the circumstances we have made no charge whatsoever for all of this actual hosting and costs incurred.
Thorpe Underwood Estate
Update 2: Richard Bartholomew has posted an interesting piece on the cancellation of the Islamia Village event. He identifies the author of the Islamic Far-Right in Britain blog (with what accuracy I don't know) as an individual named Harry Burns who was formerly a leading activist in the EDL's London division.
Update 3: It would appear that Richard's identification of the IFRB author is accurate. "Harry" – real name Andy Hughes, apparently – has posted a comment confirming this. He claims piously that he wants to see a situation where "the Islamic far right is dealt with in the same way as the nationalist far right".