Notes From the Margins…

Tommy Robinson Sees the Light

  • October 09, 2013
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There is no doubt that yesterday’s jaw-dropping announcement that Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson and twelve senior members of the English Defence League have abandoned their party is good news.

It deals a massive and possibly fatal blow to an organization that has regularly used 1930s fascist street mobilization tactics in an attempt to stir up hatred   against Muslims and intimidate Muslim communities across the country, and whose members have repeatedly engaged in acts of violence and racism.

That is certainly a good result, even if the dozens of outraged EDL members who have been left floundering and bewildered byRobinson’s departure don’t think so.     Even more extraordinary, Robinson will now be working with the British government’s favorite Muslim thinktank, the Quilliam Foundation, which apparently facilitated his Damascene conversion.

Robinson   claims to have left the party he founded four years ago because it has supposedly been taken over by ‘extremists’, and because he now wants   to continue his fight against ‘Islamist ideology’ only ‘not with violence, but with better, democratic ideas.’

In an embarrassing   interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News yesterday, he asked his former comrades to understand how hard it was for him to ‘take the flak’ for the ‘extremists’ who have penetrated the EDL against his wishes, and asked Snow to empathize with the difficult choice he made, not just to leave the organization, but to go on tv and ‘sit with Muslims.’

Yes sometimes politics does produce happy endings, it seems.   Or does it?   Because watching his shifty and dishonest performance on tv yesterday, I couldn’t shake off the suspicion that Robinson has shafted his party because he can no longer use it, and because he recognizes that it has run into a political dead end which threatens to take him down with it.

Robinson says that the EDL’s street demonstrations are no longer ‘productive’ – which may well mean that they are no longer productive for him.

After all, we are talking about a man with a string of criminal offences which include violence, traveling on a false passport and falsifying a mortgage application, and who is facing another trial this month that may end up sending up to jail again.     In this context a makeover as an anti-extremist crusader won’t hurt and may well give him a new mainstream importance – not to mention access to the Quilliam Foundation’s cash.

Robinson may also be thinking about a political career that the EDL can’t provide. In the last year he has made positive statements about UKIP, who according to him ‘ are saying what we are saying exactly what we say, just in a different way.’

To enter the mainstream requires a makeover and a reinvention of the past. In his interview with Snow, Robinson described the EDL as   a ‘passionate’ response to a demonstration by Anjem Choudhary’s whackjob Al-Muhajiroun at a British army parade in Luton in March 2009.

But that organization and its various incarnations has always been a marginalized minority within a minority, despite the EDL’s attempts to represent it as representative of British Muslims and Islam in general.   Robinson also insisted yesterday that he had been thinking of leaving the EDL since the beginning of the year, but was galvanized to stay on by the murder of Lee Rigby in May.

If so, he kept his intentions well-hidden.       Take last month’s speech   at Tower Hamlets ,   which was filled with the usual bigoted rabble-rousing references to ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ and ‘Muslims raping non-Muslim children’,   and ‘Muslim’ no go areas.     Only last week he was sending threatening tweets to an anti-EDL protester containing pictures of his house, or trying to anyway.

One one level   there’s nothing new about his current denunciation of the ‘racism’ and ‘Nazis’ who permeate the EDL.     Robinson has always always insisted that the EDL is about ‘human rights’, and ‘democracy’ and against   ‘Islamism’ rather than Islam, even though his speeches and public statements routinely fused religion, culture and ethnicity into toxic narratives of hatred that identified all Muslims as inherently dangerous, inferior and contemptible.

That hatred has always been at the heart of the EDL’s politics- and Robinson’s own.   But the Quilliam Foundation also appears to have forgotten this.     In its statement yesterday the Foundation   celebrated its own role in Robinson’s transformation ‘ as   a huge success for community relations in the United Kingdom’, declaring

We hope to help Tommy invest his energy and commitment in countering extremism of all kinds, supporting the efforts to bring along his former followers and encouraging his critique of Islamism as well as his concern with far-right extremism.

So Robinson has been engaged in a ‘critique of Islamism’ these last four years?     Well I never.     Yesterday Snow reminded Robinson of another speech in Tower Hamlets in September 2011, when he appeared disguised as a Rabbi, and delivered the following warning:

Every single Muslim watching this video on youtube, on 77, you got away with killing and maiming British citizens … you had better understand that we have built a network from one end of the country to the other end… and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our British citizens killed maimed or hurt on British soil ever again.’

The least that can be said about this is that it is not the most nuanced critique of ‘Islamism’.   At this point a personal anecdote is worth mentioning.   Last year I participated in an international discussion for BBC Radio about the Breivik trial.   One of the guests, though I don’t know it beforehand, was Robinson.

This was   presumably a typically BBC attempt to provide ‘balance’,   but it immediately became a pretext for Robinson to launch into a diatribe against Islam and its ‘2,000 years of hate’   and how Muhammed was a paedophile etc, etc.

This rant was particularly disgusting, coming from the head of an organization that Breivik drew inspiration from.     And it had nothing to do with a ‘critique of Islamism’ or ‘Islamist ideology’, any more than tweets like these do:

Of course it may well be that Robinson has genuinely renounced such views, even if he has yet to acknowledge that he ever had them.   But his dishonesty about his own past and politics doesn’t give me much room for optimism.     And despite Quilliam’s attempt to reinvent him as another former ‘fundamentalist’ fighting the good fight against what it calls a ‘symbiotic relationship between the far-right and Islamism,   I can’t reach for my handkerchief.

And I can’t help feeling that Quilliam may be in fact facilitating the pseudo-rehabilitation of a man who is not the courageous convert that he appears to be, but a devious fraud, an opportunist and a chancer and the same old bigot, whose essential cause is, and perhaps always has been,   Tommy Robinson himself.



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  1. Eric

    9th Oct 2013 - 10:16 am

    I know where you’re coming from, but I disagree. I’ve been following this story for about a month – interviewed Tommy in Luton, then joined the march in Tower Hamlets (quite intense) and this week met an undercover officer from the Domestic Extremism Unit that monitors and infiltrates the EDL and other far-right groups. The conclusion I came to was that Tommy is genuine but confused. I thought perhaps he was being disingenuous or calculating when I met him, but I could tell he was really wrestling with the things he had learned along the way. Worth remembering he was an angry 26-year-old with little education when this started, but he’s clearly gone to some lengths to learn about Islam and I think that’s what triggered this shift. As the Extremism Unit pointed out to me – he could have used the real racists if he wanted to, instead he let the movement splinter.
    This feature was written before I met the copper and yesterday’s news, but gives you some indication of his thought processes (there’s a 2 week free trial):

    • Matt

      9th Oct 2013 - 10:43 am

      Thanks for this Eric. Is there anyway you can send me this piece without me having to go through all the credit card/free trial details? I hate giving my details out unnecessarily, and sometimes forget to cancel! Regarding your points, you may very well be right, and I hope you are. Because people can change, especially when they don’t know that much to start with, and such changes should be welcomed when they occur. But for that to happen, you need to recognize honestly what you were doing in the first place. From where I’m standing Robinson hasn’t even begun to do this, but insists on representing himself a some kind of hero whose heart was in the right place, but whose good intentions have been hijacked. I think that is an absolutely false and self-serving representation, and I don’t see any evidence that Robinson has learned anything about Islam in his declarations yesterday or in his most recent speeches. Not to mention the fact that his politics were never just about ‘Islam’ but about Muslims – and sometimes ‘immigrants’ too. But I would love to see your piece.

      • Eric

        9th Oct 2013 - 8:07 pm

        I agree with your points about his failure to apologise, though I think it’s important to recognise that he was genuine in thinking that there was a real crisis. The problem was that he was confused about the nature of the threat, where it came from, and how to address it. I don’t think he’s fully realised – yet- how wrong he was. But greater minds than his have struggled with the relationship between Islam and extremism. Still, I agree that a more direct apology to the Muslim community was needed.
        Send an email to [email protected] and I’ll send you the article

        • Matt

          10th Oct 2013 - 7:59 am

          I think you’re giving far too much credibility and legitimacy to Robinson and the EDL’s ‘anti-extremism’ line than it deserves. Of course Robinson used that kind of language to make his message seem respectable and ‘not racist’ etc, just as he talked about ‘moderate’ Muslims. But his speeches and public statements relentlessly attacked Muslims and Islam per se, on grounds that had nothing to do with ‘extremism’ or ‘Islamism’ and more to do with a hate agenda that Robinson has not even begun to acknowledge.

          As for ‘a direct apology to the Muslim community’ – he doesn’t think he has anything to apologize for. And his recent statements about working with Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar (and her support for his position) make it quite clear that his departure from the EDL is a career move rather than the result of a troubled man groping towards truth and decency. I think the Quilliam Foundation are as opportunist as he is, and have made a huge mistake in associating themselves with this transformation. But I will email you about the article.

          • Eric

            10th Oct 2013 - 8:29 am

            If you’d asked me before i met him, I would absolutely have agreed with you, and I struggled with the notion that he was doing a PR number on me when we met. But in the end, that’s really not the impression I got. And, to be fair, the undercover unit that’s been monitoring him for years backs me up. I’m writing more on this in the Sunday Indy so would be glad of your views.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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