Criticise if you will, but Tommy Robinson’s leaving the EDL is a positive move

I first met Tommy yesterday morning and spent most of the day having brief conversations with him as I helped co-ordinate media requests for Quilliam. I believed Tommy when he told me that he is not a racist and does not hate ordinary Muslims.

Tommy Robinson 3

Ghaffar Hussain is head of outreach and training at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam

Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), announced his departure from that organisation yesterday and simultaneously upset a lot of people.

Those most upset were not members of the EDL or his previous sympathisers as one may have expected. Rather it was the usual coterie of trendy wine bar types who just weren’t buying it and, somehow, knew better.

This denial was followed up by attempts to expose his recent tweets and currently held positions on a number of issues, with view to convincing the world that he hadn’t changed at all and was still the nasty little Nazi we all knew he was.

Even those with a history of making bigoted statements themselves were quick to point out that he hadn’t moved far enough towards a more enlightened world view.

Such an approach towards the Robinson defection story is both lamentable and, sadly, predictable.

An old Chinese proverb goes ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. Tommy’s defection from the EDL, an organisation that he helped form in 2009, represents a first step in a positive direction. His defection was accompanied by regrets, apologies and clarifications, as well as a continued adherence to some positions that many may find unacceptable.

However, this move will take the wind out of the EDL’s sails and, hopefully, signal the start of the end for the thuggish street protests we have all come to associate with the EDL brand.

His defection does not represent an overnight transformation into a new reformed character, nor does it signal the arrival of the English Ghandi. In many respects we are still dealing with the same Tommy, albeit with a wiser head and a better understanding of how to get his message across. To point to unacceptable views or actions as evidence that his defection has no significance is to miss the point completely.

I first met Tommy yesterday morning and spent most of the day having brief conversations with him as I helped co-ordinate media requests for Quilliam. Unless my normally sharp instincts for bigotry, hatred and racism, gained from growing up in a very violent, and often racist, working class community in the Midlands, had completely deserted me, I believed Tommy when he told me that he is not a racist and does not hate ordinary Muslims.

He also told me that he is passionate about fighting extremism in this country and speaking out against it, which it the right of every British citizen.

He maintains the EDL was never meant to be a racist or even an anti-Muslim organisation. In his view, it adopted the wrong tactics and, owing to the lack of tight control and management, got infiltrated by more extremist elements as it developed. This narrative is plausible, except speakers at EDL rallies, such as Gurmit Singh, often did espouse blatantly anti-Muslim views to rapturous applause.

In truth, it began as a mere reaction to taunts and threats directed at our Armed Forces, by Islamist extremists, which culminated in the beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby earlier this year. It was out of control from the start, the line between anti-Muslim and anti-extremist rhetoric was blurred and it soon morphed into a beast that no-one could control or steer in a clear direction.

However, it would not have come into existence at all if there was not a void for it to fill. The sense that nothing is being done about Islamist extremism is all to palatable in many communities up and down this country and many of EDL’s harshest critics have watched the rise of Islamist extremism in this country with complete indifference.

Tommy is clearly a work in progress and, to his credit, he acknowledges that. He has taken a bold step in leaving the EDL and his immediate future is uncertain. What he needs right now to support and guidance so that he can channel his grievances in a more positive and mainstream way.

He also needs to learn to be clear about his message, if it is indeed misunderstood, and work in unison with people of all faith and race backgrounds in order to address hate and prejudice in our society.

In this regard, Quilliam will be working with him in order to provide the guidance and training necessary, but even this arduous and challenging work can be derailed if he is not given the time and space to develop.

Right now, this is the best outcome that could have been expected, given Tommy’s journey thus far. Of course, no one has a crystal ball and it’s not clear what the future holds. However, it has taken a lot of hard work by people who are driven by a strong desire to create a safer and more inclusive Britain to get things this far.

Everyone has a right to criticise and point to faults but armchair critics and keyboard warriors, who wear their politics as a fashion item and claim to speak for a working class they have never met, should not be surprised when they are not taken seriously.

Especially since so many are all too willing to overlook similar faults when dealing with figures from minority communities, who they hold to a lower standard and wish to instrumentalise for parochial and petty political gain.

  • Linda K.

    you really believe that?

  • Linda K.
  • Felix

    Appalling and puerile ad hominem attack on critics of Robinson makes the author little better than the extremist himself.

  • Mark

    I always saw the EDL as a pretty much disorganised bunch of football hooligans. In fact, they went about their ‘business’ almost exactly like football hooligans, with the ‘divisions’ and flags, chanting, and unless I’m misinformed, Robinson’s ‘name’ was taken from an infamous Luton hooligan. Then there was the “we are only against Islamic terrorism,” which was a little annoying given that I’d followed Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins on the same subject for many years in an atmosphere of London terror attacks. The difference settling on “all muslims” or “muslim terrorists”, “Islam” or “Islamism”? Was Robinson telling the truth? Agreeing with him on the radical Islamist problem may have had me in danger of being looked upon as an EDL supporter, nevermind the years of reading intellectuals.

    It seems some simply do not believe him when he says it’s only about millitant Islamism, and no problem with ordinary Muslims. The obvious thing the press focus on is what he said at a rally, where the “All Muslims” rhetoric was used. How do I know which is which? But I’d like to believe it is the radical Islamism side, rather than anything else. Many leftist commentators seem to be 100% the other way on this.

    His resignation was no surprise to me, given that he’s had so much TV and radio time since Woolwich, has made a documentary with new-found media and Muslim organisation pals, and simply can’t now be associated with the regular thuggish, uneducated persona of many of the EDL members. He outgrew them.

    Another confusing thing is how again, leftist writers are suspicious of Quilliam, without actually saying why. Yes, they have ex-Jihadies, but they are reformed aren’t they? If that organisation *is* fighting Islamic extremism, then why do those writers not support? What is it that I’m missing, given that the MI5 chief says the British public are fair game for perhaps 2,000 terrorists. I have never believed their rhetoric that the EDL are more of a danger to this country than the Islamic extremists.

    There is a huge amount of misinformation going on and sometimes it is difficult as to who supports whom, who is against whom and why, and who has a personal egotistical agenda rather than anything else.

    With Robinson, it is hard to see what he does now in terms of helping stop that home-grown terror problem. Perhaps the only effect his resignation will have will be that the EDL can’t now be viewed with any seriousness and will totally crumble and return completely to having football punch ups.

  • septicisle

    All Robinson has done is apologise for any discomfort or fear caused by the EDL’s many marches, while at the same time making clear that he still believes that Islam should be controlled by the state and immigration halted entirely. It’s not that Quilliam has been naive, it’s the utter cynicism involved in this move, allowing one leader of a movement that had reached a dead end to claim he’s changed, while another group that has floundered also can claim to have achieved something. Watching Robinson on Newsnight last night claiming to have never been racist or to have knowingly allowed those dedicated to whipping up hate would have been laughable had Quilliam not essentially backed up his lies.

  • tcgriffin

    My concern about this development is that the English Defence League was only ever one component with the wider ‘Counterjihad Movement’. (On which See HOPE not Hate’s report:

    Everything that he has said so far, suggests that Robinson wants to abandon the particular tactics and branding associated with the EDL, while retaining the strategy and ethos of the counterjihad movement. How does Quilliam intend to avoid that outcome?

    You say Robinson has to “work in unison with people of all faith and race backgrounds in order to address hate and prejudice in our society”. Yet he has refused to disassociate himself from extremists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar who are still supporting him. Something has to give somewhere.

  • swatnan

    I’m prepared to take Tommy’s word for it that he’s changed; people do you know when they see a project specifically directed against Chowdrays islamofacism get out of hand. The truth is that EDL was hijacked by the far right nazis and facists. Lets hope Tommey can convince other young people that extremism is not the answer to the islamofacists. The Authorities must now take action against Chowdray and his ilk and lock these dangerous men away, for a long time.

  • Matthew Blott

    Is that a post about an Islamic extremist who has recanted but we should still be wary of them. Like, oh I don’t know Moazzam Begg? No? Oh of course, Moazzam Begg has never recanted for anything or explained properly his jihadi past. But he still gets plenty of space in the Grauniad to convince gullible fools like yourself.

  • Matthew Blott

    This subject has been done to death on the centre-left blogosphere (unlike, funnily enough, anything on Islamic extremism which is barely ever mentioned) and this is the first sensible post I’ve read. Guilty white liberals have been desperately inflating the significance of the EDL to that of international Islamic terrorism so the fact the leader of the organisation has left and apologised for past sins won’t stop them. Owen Jones will continue to be offended on behalf of brown skinned people rather than support an organisation like the Quilliam Foundation and Sunny Hundal will continue to devote a disproportionate amount of space on his site to the EDL (Hundal even wrote an article for the Grauniad suggesting Tommy Robinson’s actions could make him and / or the EDL more dangerous). Like Ghaffar Hussain I despair of the “armchair critics and keyboard warriors, who wear their politics as a fashion item and claim to speak for a working class they have never met” – the bien pensant left exemplified by Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and John Harris. Most of these middle class (and often privately educated) useful idiots have an overly romantic view of the working class and have never met anyone like Tommy Robinson. I grew up with lots of Tommy Robinsons – they like drinking and fighting with a bit of old fashioned bigotry thrown in. Often as family commitments take over they grow up and I suspect that’s what has happened with Robinson. Trying to make the collection of former football hooligans and lager louts that are the EDL as the Third Reich is both laughable and risible and makes it difficult for me to take the likes of Hundal et al seriously any more.

  • D. Brown

    I’m no longer surprised when journalist speak of white racism towards Muslims but neglect Muslim prejudices towards non-Muslims.
    Moderates are just as responsible for radical Islamism as the radicals themselves. Why? Because moderates fail to report the Muslim Criminals that live in their own neighborhoods, who are their friends and relatives and business associates. The moderate mosque leaders invite hate preachers and allow anti-jewish and anti-Christian doctrines to become embedded in the hearts and souls of the ignorant listeners. Can you blame the people of the EDL for speaking out against the moderates as well? You may not wish to identify the hatred tightly interwoven throughout Islamic culture, but nevertheless it exists, and for many in the EDL, those who live in mixed neighborhoods, they live with it everyday. They have the same intuitive prejudice radar as you do.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    I don’t think moderates do the things you think they do.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Yeah, its been interesting to see how confused some liberals can get over race and religion.

  • Kat

    If he can be won over to a more moderate viewpoint and wants to listen then he should be given that chance. Tolerance isn’t an exclusive club, the more people who can be won over to reason the better.

  • Kat

    If he can be won over to a more moderate viewpoint and wants to listen then he should be given that chance. Tolerance isn’t an exclusive club, the more people who can be won over to reason the better.