The Muslim photographer who chronicled the rise of the far-right

The Muslim photographer who chronicled the rise of the far-right

Rizwan Ali was on the frontlines of Britain First and EDL demos throughout the 2010s, capturing a decade of Islamophobia by standing firmly in its face.

It was a cloudy day in Dudley, a small town in the West Midlands, on May 9, 2015. Around 150 Britain First supporters were protesting plans to build a new mosque, which would replace the smaller mosques being closed down. They swarmed the streets, brandishing Union Jack flags and a banner which read “No More Mosques!” Standing in the middle of all of this was Rizwan Ali, a Birmingham-born Muslim photographer.

Among the sea of white faces, Ali – as a tall brown man – was easy to spot. Not least because he was standing, Nikon D700 in hand, on the steps of Dudley Council House while Britain First’s then-deputy leader Jayda Fransen delivered an anti-Muslim speech a few metres away. She was interrupted by Paul Golding ordering his “henchmen” to remove Ali; a video posted by IAmBirmingham shows him being dragged over a handrail and frog-marched away to chants of “pedo” from the baying crowd.

Ali speaks casually about this, and the frequency with which protestors hurled slurs at him during the eight years he spent documenting far-right activity in the UK in the 2010s. “I’d run to the front of the march, avoiding the coppers, to start taking photos,” he tells Huck from a cafe in Birmingham. “Then when [the protestors] saw me, oh, the amount of swearing. They'd be calling me a paedophile, rapist lover, suicide bomber. They’d say ‘we're going to kill you, you’re taking our daughters away from us, trying to marry underage girls.’”

Ali, a 41-year-old civil servant, was undeterred. He fought his way to the frontline of almost every demo held by Britain First, the English Defence League and the Democratic Lads Alliance between 2013 and 2020, at the height of sensationalism around the so-called “war on terror” and Asian grooming gangs. The results provide an intimate insight into the experience of a Muslim man standing firm in the face of racists. His dynamic black and white images capture the hostility, pride and hedonism of the demonstrators – a collection of which are being published in his zine Not Your Streets: A photo retrospective of the UK far-right movement.

Ali, who taught himself how to take photos after failing a photography course at university, hoped to represent the essence and the mood of these demonstrations, and was always looking for things that other people missed. While other photographers focused on people, he tried more ambiguous shots, snapping haunting images of an empty podium, a lone EDL flag flapping in the wind, and close-ups of tattoos on shaved heads. It wasn't clinical documentation; Ali was not afforded the luxury of being a neutral observer. “The other photographers were white. The [demonstrators] weren't reacting to them, they were targeting me,” he recalls. The reaction kept him coming back. “It was like my own protest,” he says. “I wanted them to see me, to know I was a Pakistani Muslim and I would keep turning up. I remember hearing them chanting from far off […] it used to give me a buzz. I loved it, I won't lie.”

Ali got to know people in left wing activist circles, some of whom complained that he was “giving [far-right groups] a platform”. He strongly disagrees. “Sure, I was angry. But if you don't document, people down the line don't know what we are up against,” he explains.

Before he threw himself on the frontline of the far-right, Ali spent a decade “religiously” photographing street art in Birmingham. At this point, he didn’t care about politics. “I’d see people at demos and think they were wasting their time,” he says.

Everything changed in 2013, when he heard an EDL rally was planned for Tower Hamlets. He vaguely knew of this group; they’d been active in his hometown, but he decided it was time to “see what it was all about.” He hopped on a coach to London and stepped into a sea of 500 EDL members. It was a memorable march. Violent clashes broke out, and Ali was in the thick of it. One guy threatened to stab him with a ski stick. “He stuck his finger up and I snapped [a picture of] him. He was very angry. He tried to get me arrested, but that didn’t go down very well,” Ali says.

After that, something clicked. “I realised I had to step up. I thought, 'You are a Muslim, a second-generation immigrant, this is directed at you',” he remembers. He’d be at a demo week in, week out, reacting to violence by clicking the shutter button on his camera. He was unfazed, and often bemused, by the constant threats. These moments of provocation make for some of his most impactful photographs, with angry faces and middle fingers seen in suffocating proximity. During that EDL demo in Dudley in 2015, one demonstrator kissed another wearing a pig mask.“They were shouting ‘Muslims watch this’ an ‘Ooo good old bacon’. I just started laughing. They think Muslims will see a pig and melt,” Ali says.

"I realised I had to step up. I thought, 'You are a Muslim, a second-generation immigrant, this is directed at you'.”

Rizwan Ali, Photographer

Others, heady with drunken bravado, would ask Ali to take their picture. One couple smiled for the camera as they proclaimed they were fascists. Another lady pulled up her top and, on her stomach, in black marker: “Islam’s not for me.” After Ali took the picture, she swigged from a big bottle of Pepsi mixed with cider and hugged him.

Over the years, demonstrators started to recognise Ali. It was an uneasy relationship. At a rally, he was offered a handshake out of respect for consistently showing up (he turned it down). Meanwhile, his face and name were added to Red Watch, the far-right’s list of people it believed to be far-left and Antifa activists. A fearless Ali thrived in the intensity. “I’d tell my companions, if we do get attacked, we're not gonna sit down and take it,” he says.

Despite everything, Ali remained hopeful that he could get through to some demonstrators. “If you don't talk to them, how are they meant to change?” he says. “There were plenty of committed racists, but some were gullible, some may have valid reasons from their context, and I swear others were just there because their friends were.”

Ali started interviewing ex-members and found that some had “completely turned their lives around.” They’d tell him they just believed what they grew up around, and that they realised none of the prejudice was warranted once they started speaking to people. Others found that EDL and BF were not doing what they purported to do, falling foul to backstabbing without any commitment to a cause.

Once a consistent presence, the EDL and BF have largely disappeared from the streets. The EDL made headlines in 2017 for cancelling a march because just six people turned up and is now essentially defunct, while Britain First is finding new legitimacy online. In their place, the recently formed Patriotic Alternative is busy recruiting a new generation of Neo-Nazis to capitalise on the government's anti-immigration agenda with demonstrations held outside migrant accommodation. The recent increase in these rallies has little to do with PA though. So-called “migrant hunters”, a unique brand of far right internet personalities, have led the charge. They represent the current fragmentation of the British far-right, which is ever rebranding itself according to the politically inflamed fears.

Meanwhile, Ali has turned his attention to other protests across Britain and France. He knows there are splinter cells of the far-right operating in the UK, but nothing like the demos he witnessed in the 2010s. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but if the far right do resurface [to that level], expect to see me on the front lines again,” he says, laughing.

Not Your Streets will be released soon. Follow Riz on Instagram for updates.

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