Britain First wants to outlaw Islam in Britain. Its members are banned from entering mosques, though this does not stop them childishly emptying beer cans outside them. Their leaders speak of a Muslim invasion of Britain. This is not some far-right party engaged in democratic politics, but a genuinely extremist group. Retweets from the president of the US with his 43.9 million followers was basically all their Christmases coming at once.
As a result, a group that could not even muster 1,000 members now claims to have had a huge boost in exposure and interest. Deputy leader Jayda Fransen gained 26,000 Twitter followers in the first 24 hours. This is as problematic as the disproportionate publicity given to Muslim extremists in Britain, who speak for so very few Muslims. As Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada became household names, so too now may Fransen and Paul Golding, the party leader.
Did Donald Trump know who Britain First were before he retweeted those posts? Did he even attempt to verify the videos? Did he know Fransen was facing an impending trial? Was it some manufactured drama to distract from other issues?
Trump could apologize and delete the tweets. Instead he fired back at British Prime Minister Theresa May’s criticisms of his actions. “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” he tweeted. But many Americans may dispute that last bit.
Brand Trump is even more toxic in Britain, where 55 percent think he should not be allowed to visit the UK. He is due to open the new US Embassy there toward the end of February 2018, but the inevitable protests could break records. This was already a visit laced with controversy, not least as the ceremonial state visit that Trump had been granted has all but disappeared off the official agenda. Some British politicians, even Conservative ones, were so furious that they called for Twitter to close the president’s account.
Given the closeness of US-UK relations, it is quite an achievement for Trump to soil these historic ties. British citizens are not used to seeing and hearing their prime minister laying into an American president, at least not since Bill Clinton infuriated John Major by granting a visa to Gerry Adams, the IRA leader. Many MPs were even more forceful. It is hard to see that Theresa May has a choice, but would Tony Blair, so close to both Presidents Clinton and George Bush Jr., have dared to be so critical?
Far-right extremist groups in Britain have existed for ages, but typically have been divided and fought with each other over a small political space, with massive spats and fallouts between leaders. Britain First is the result of a split within the British National Party and the English Defense League, which in turn was an offshoot of the National Front. Many would include UKIP and its former leader Nigel Farage as being on the fringes of these groupings. While they all know they can never win an election, they crave the oxygen of publicity and do so largely through marches, direct action, violence and stunts. Although Britain First is not yet proscribed, surely it is only a matter of time.
Twitter storm fall-out is not about British-US tensions, it is about hatred and an antipathy directed largely at Muslims, even if they are peace-loving and moderate.
Most British people would not go near a group such as Britain First. What is terrifying is that many might share many of their views, not least on Muslims, even though the far-right is nowhere near as strong as in some other European countries, Poland for example.
With every boost to the far-right, there is a dangerous and equivalent boost to extremist Islamist groups and vice versa. They feed off each others’ hatred. The lineup of those who will not mind Trump’s actions includes the extreme far-right, such as neo-Nazi groups, violent extremist Muslims, and almost certainly President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who enjoys any sign of social instability and division anywhere in Europe.
This story is not about Trump and May, or British-American tensions. This week it happened to be Britain, whilst most weeks Trump is giving airtime to extremists in his own backyard, failing to condemn neo-Nazis and fascists marching on American streets. Above all it is about hatred, an antipathy directed largely at Muslims, regardless of their views and even if they are peace-loving and moderate as most are.
Trump has many potential allies in the Islamic world who still have high hopes for him, but his ill-judged tweets may risk all of that.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.