The day I met Tommy Robinson

Last week Lejla Kuric met the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) Tommy Robinson. This is what she found out.

Last week I met the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) Tommy Robinson during a meeting held at the offices of the Quilliam Foundation.

I shook his hand and had a friendly conversation. It was a slightly surreal encounter that would have been unthinkable just over a month ago.

On 9 October 2013, in a surprise move, the EDL’s then-leaders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll resigned from the controversial street protest movement in order to work with Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank founded by former members of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.

This move appears to be the beginning of the end for the EDL and their thuggish street protests as confusion, in-fighting and fragmentation take hold of the movement.

Unsurprisingly, staunch supporters of the dwindling group are angry and feel betrayed.

Surprisingly, this anger is shared by a number of anti-racist groups and many on the liberal left who should – one would have thought – be happy with this turn of the events. In fact, amongst many left-wingers Quilliam were derided as foolish sell-outs, blinded by a desire for money and exposure and consequently duped by Robinson’s cunning.

It is interesting to notice that this narrative is being pushed by the very same people who are often indifferent to Islamist extremism and who are all too willing to turn blind eye to bigotry when it comes from Muslim public personalities.

There are, however, still serious questions and concerns regarding Robinson’s defection from the EDL and the alliance he has forged with Quilliam that need to be dealt with, and the meeting I attended was organised in order to address such concerns.

The meeting began with Robinson explaining how the EDL came about. He asserted that the EDL was initially a response to the extremist organisation Al-Muhajiroun that organised a protest against British armed forces, in which soldiers were insulted and threatened. There was a strong sense of frustration in Luton after this protest since it was felt that nothing was being done about Islamist extremism and that debate was being suffocated by political correctness – “We were gagged” Robinson said.

According to Robinson, he never intended for the EDL to become a racist or anti-Muslim organisation, but the strategy he adopted backfired as anti-extremist rhetoric merged with anti-Muslim rhetoric, thereby attracting racist and neo-fascist elements.

I find this narrative somewhat unconvincing since numerous speakers at these rallies gave blatantly anti-Muslim speeches to rapturous applause, while anti-Muslim chants and comments were commonplace rather than isolated incidents.

When asked why he did not join forces with Muslims fighting Islamic extremism, Robinson said he was not aware of them at the time. His view of Muslims, he affirmed, was distorted by the fact that reactionaries and non-violent Islamists dominated Muslim representation in the media, at interfaith-events and in local government initiatives.

A hijab-clad lady confronted Robinson about anti-Muslim attacks that are increasingly being directed at women like her. Whilst condemning such attacks, Robinson, disappointingly said “Muslim men are also attacking white women”, presumably referring to grooming gangs.

Violence against women should be condemned without the need to make tribal distinction between ‘your’ and ‘our’ women, and Robinson’s use of this argument betrays a reliance on the kind of divisive identity politics he would do well to discard.

Talking about personal cost, Robinson said that he regularly receives violent threats against him and family. At that point I asked Robinson: “While there is no excuse for the threats made to you, don’t you think that it was you who whipped up this level of hostility, where violent threats are commonplace?”. As an example I cited threats he makes in this video clip.

His response was unequivocal. “Yes.” He explained “At the time I thought we need to put pressure on Muslims.”

His straightforward honesty on this issue was commendable.

Could ordinary people – Muslims and non-Muslims – back Tommy Robinson in his stance against Islamist extremism? Yes, but there is a major stumbling block – Robinson’s perceived relationship with anti-Muslim bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

Robinson did state that he had cut ties with both of them but when pushed to condemn them in public, he was reluctant and demanded to see evidence of their bigotry.

I still find many of Robinson’s views troubling to say the least. However his reasons for leaving the EDL are commendable. I also share his fears about the widening chasm between some communities.

What really struck me was the fact Robinson was prepared put aside differences and work with Muslims for the sake of community relations in this country. This is not the attitude of a hateful fascist he is often made out to be.

Yes, he has made some regrettable comments in the past but it is unfair to indefinitely punish him for his past when he is moving in the right direction. It is movement we ought to encourage and support.

The commentators complaining about Robinson’s lack of a ‘Damascene conversion’ are missing the point. He has come a long way from a man threatening ‘every single Muslim’ to the man I watched positively engaging with Muslims.

The fact that the former EDL leader, former Hizb ut-Tahrir members, former Jihadists, Muslims, ex-Muslims and others were sitting at the same table openly debating extremism, the role of religion and culture was extraordinary. I would go as far as to say it was even a historic occasion.

This is precisely the kind cutting edge, anti-extremism work this country really needs and, in that regard, the Qulliam Foundation is leading the way.

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