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European Far Right Trying to Erase Violent Past

Members of the English Defense League [EDL] join Swedish nationalist right-wing groups during a demonstration to protest the building of a new mosque in Gothenburg, Sweden, May 2011. (file photo)

Immigration is one of the hottest topics in Europe today. And it's an issue giving far right grassroots organizations and political parties momentum in European governments and on the Internet. An examination of one group's agenda, and the evolution of groups like it, provide a closer look at this issue.

The English Defense League [EDL] is shutting down one of London's busiest thoroughfares - the street that's home to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. With a massive police escort, they are making their message clear.

“Stop the Islamification of Great Britain,” shout some of the marchers.

It’s a nationalistic agenda - the same one many far right groups are pushing in Europe.

The EDL marches its message past the British parliament, but it has no official position in government - unlike many other far-right groups.

They claim they are non-violent. And the group has its own security detail - called the EDL Stewards - who say they are there to keep peace. They don neon yellow and orange vests during rallies.

This protest - lead by the women's faction of the EDL - was mostly peaceful.

But EDL rallies often end in violence. Extra police forces have flanked recent protests, and they have had more peaceful endings.

The group says it isn't racist. But founding member Gail Speight believes Muslims are trying to change British society, not integrate. This irritates her.

“I’ve got Sikh friends. I’ve got Black friends. Muslims have a different perspective on things,” said Speight.

The EDL started in 2009. But European far right expert Andrea Mammone said their ideology is not new.

“The overall universe, galaxy of the extreme right, is trying to build their identity, always over the years, since Fascism, inter-world Fascism, having an enemy, having someone who is different, having someone who is the other,” said Mammone.

Max Levitas knows what it's like to be the other. As a teenager in 1936, he and his neighbors clashed with police in East London to stop a Fascist march through their largely Jewish neighborhood.

“There were thousands of people in the Cable Street area and the police charged the people in order to clear Cable Street for the Fascists,” said Levitas.

It's now known as the Battle of Cable Street. Levitas believes not much has changed between the Fascists then and the EDL today.

"The EDL is a fascist organization. They should be banned," he said.

Journalist K. Biswas is writing a book about the European far right. He said the far right today can trace its roots to 20th century fascism, but is not fascist.

“What these parties have tried is to remove themselves from their violent past. They have actively stood against anti-Semitism. And they are seeking change through democratic means,” said Biswas.

And some EDL members say a role in government is something they hope to put on their agenda in the future.