x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A crisis of conscience

The leader of England’s anti-Muslim movement resigned last month, citing the dangers of extremism. Eric Randolph assesses Tommy Robinson’s motivations

Members of the English Defence League hold a demonstration in Bolton’s Victoria Square, where United Against Fascism protesters also held a rally on March 20, 2010. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Members of the English Defence League hold a demonstration in Bolton’s Victoria Square, where United Against Fascism protesters also held a rally on March 20, 2010. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

On a late summer weekend, I found myself trapped in a crowd of thugs. All around me, people were chanting anti-Muslim slogans. My nostrils were filled with the stench of stale lager and cigarettes, and also urine because the formidable police presence meant no one could get to toilets. To say the least, an English Defence League (EDL) march is not a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Nowhere in Europe has as large an Islamophobic street movement as the United Kingdom. There are many far-right political parties across the continent, some with a measure of political power and many that hate Islam (gradually replacing, or at least complementing, their traditional hatred for Jews). But no group attracts ordinary citizens for street protests specifically against Islam in the same numbers as the English Defence League.

Officially, the movement was supposed to be against Islamist extremism. It formed in 2009 in response to a small group of Muslim radicals in the southern industrial town of Luton, who were protesting against soldiers returning from Afghanistan. It quickly spawned similar street marches up and down the country – at their peak attracting around 1,500 people at a time.

Many who joined the marches came from football hooligan backgrounds and used them as an excuse to shout obscenities against Islam, drink copious amounts of alcohol and get into fights – often with each other. They exploited the wafer-thin veneer of credibility that came from claiming they opposed only extremists, even though their chants and rhetoric repeatedly targeted all Muslims.

So it came as a shock when – apparently out of the blue – the movement’s founder suddenly announced his resignation last month. Tommy Robinson declared that he had realised the dangers of far-right extremism in the EDL and was abandoning the use of street protests in favour of unspecified “better, democratic ideas” for tackling Islamist extremism.

Many commentators smelled a rat. They believed it was a ploy by Robinson. They said he still harboured hatred for Muslims and was only distancing himself from the EDL’s thuggish reputation, possibly as a prelude to an even more worrying move into politics.

I was less cynical about it. I had interviewed Robinson about a month before and had seen hints of a man wrestling with the contradictions of his position and guilt over the social tensions he had created.

We had met for lunch in Luton, where the 30-year-old grew up and ran a few businesses, including a tanning salon. His real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – he chose Tommy Robinson after the leader of a Luton football hooligan gang in the 1980s, which speaks volumes about his background.

“Of course our tactics are questionable,” he told me. “I was chatting to a Muslim woman yesterday – I get how when we go into a town centre, she feels uncomfortable. I don’t feel happy about that.”

So why do you do it? I asked. “What choice do we have? No one’s listened to us. When we started out, if we talked to councils and tried to explain to government, or even to Muslims – how many would even talk to us? Not one. They’re only talking to me now because of what we done.”

What about all the thugs on your marches? “Here’s the thing – 10 per cent of our lads are [hooligans],” he says. “It’s the same as Luton football team – you’ll get 9,000 people go watch the football and 100 lads that go to fight. Do we try to deal with them? Yeah, we do. It takes away from our message – but would anyone even be hearing our message if there wasn’t that?”

He was adamant that he was not racist and didn’t hate Muslims – that he was only worried about extremist forms of Islam taking root in the UK. I believed that he was not racist, at least in the narrow sense that he has black friends and grew up in a multicultural town in which skin colour hardly registers with people anymore. He also sounded genuine in his (failed) attempts to keep out neo-Nazis and openly racist groups.

But he was unrepentant about the marches as a whole, saying they had brought attention to the problem of extremism and provided a “pressure valve” for angry Brits.

I asked Matthew Goodwin, an expert on far-right movements at the University of Nottingham, whether such marches could ever play a productive role.

“There is an argument that groups like the EDL do enable some politically and financially marginalised groups in society – young, working-class and poorly educated men – to channel their views into the political process,” he said. “Without that outlet, the risk is that their grievances remain underground, and possibly lead them into even more extreme alternatives.

“But that is offset by the way in which these demonstrations entrench feelings of collective identity. It was incubating those young men in a movement that sought to fundamentally change the way that they view the world around them, notably the religion of Islam. The legacy of the EDL is a few thousand young, working-class men who have been radicalised and handed a warped view of British Muslims and their beliefs.”

When he resigned in early October, Robinson described EDL supporters as “the best people in my life”. This may have been an attempt to smooth over his sudden abandonment of the cause – he received a torrent of death threats in the days that followed – but clearly he did not fully regret what he had done.

During our interview, I was more impressed by Robinson’s attempts to educate himself. Like many ordinary Brits, he has been bombarded with negative imagery about Muslims by the right-wing press and the endless attention paid to terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam.

This warped his view of the religion, but he had made some effort to learn – he read the Quran, met senior Muslim clerics, and debated with academics, NGOs and think tanks. As he talked, I could sense him wrestling with all this new-found knowledge, as his baser instincts to lash out ran up against a real urge to understand the problem.

One minute he was sweeping and inflammatory (“Every single week somebody gets attacked [by Muslims]. It’s not extremists – it’s an attitude that’s bred into them growing up that they’re better than you.”) The next minute, he seemed able to make distinctions (“Look in Mali – the French went in, people were over the moon because they got rid of the Islamists. It’s not all Muslims.”)

Britain does have a problem with Islamic extremism – it has produced over 100 convicted Islamic terrorists and continues to send dozens – possibly hundreds – of fighters to Syria.

But as Robinson has learnt about different schools of Islam, he has started to distinguish the extremists from ordinary Muslims.

“[Robinson] is guilty of stirring up anti-Muslim hatred,” said Usama Hasan, a researcher with an anti-extremist organisation called the Quilliam Foundation that guided Robinson towards his resignation. “He’s misguided and he wavers – sometimes he’ll say he’s only opposed to Muslim extremists and other times he’ll say that Islam can’t be reformed and all Muslims are potential extremists. But I get the impression he does listen and he’s been doing his reading, and it’s slowly getting through.”

The irony, Hasan added, is that the EDL misinterprets Islam in the same way as the extremists it opposes. “Both sides take a literalist interpretation of the Quran and believe that a devout Muslim can’t fit into western society. In fact, there’s always been a rich debate within Islam. The more rational strands have been buried over the centuries, but the religion is in the midst of its reformation.”

A few weeks later, I received a call from a former police officer who had just retired from the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU), which covertly monitors radical left- and right-wing groups, including the EDL. He spoke on condition of anonymity, and gave me a series of directions to a central London location where he was waiting with a minder, such is the dangerous – and often controversial – work of his former unit.

“The EDL is likely to wither and die now,” he told me. “It was already seeing a marked decline – these movements only have a certain life cycle.”

The movement was given a temporary boost, he said, by the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in an apparent terrorist attack in the Woolwich area of London in May. “But prior to that incident, the numbers at EDL rallies had declined dramatically. It’s obvious that some people feel very strongly about it, but clearly it hasn’t taken over their lives to the point where they want to travel up and down the country every weekend.”

As for Robinson, the police officer agreed that his resignation from the EDL was probably a genuine desire to move away from the situation he had created – “I can imagine that getting bombarded with hate messages every day would get wearing after awhile.”

Police monitoring had also found that Robinson was “never terribly well-liked” among regional organisers of the EDL, “but he was accepted as the best leader because he had a certain amount of charisma and cunning”.

Since Robinson’s resignation, the regional organisers appear to have given up on the idea of a national leader and have instead set up a new committee of local representatives. There is a risk, the NDEU officer said, that disillusioned supporters may drift towards more extreme organisations – groups with names like the Infidels and the English Volunteer Force who had splintered off because the EDL was not racist enough. But these remain a tiny fringe, and are closely watched by the police.

If all this paints a rather gloomy picture of modern-day Britain, it’s worth noting the positive conclusion that could be drawn. It was only 50 years ago that a Conservative could campaign on a slogan of “Don’t Have a Nigger for a Neighbour”. Despite often ugly debates about immigration and signs that racism is still a major problem in UK businesses and institutions, there is no way that such comments would be tolerated today. Some surveys show Britain to be one of the most racially tolerant countries in the world. At least at the rhetorical level, it has become deeply unfashionable to be labelled a racist, with even the most adamant opponents of immigration desperate to show that their arguments are based on economics rather than questions of race or ethnicity.

Tommy Robinson appears to have carried an impulse to hate and fear the outsider, but he also grew up in a culture that demonises racists. I left with the impression that this contradiction was eating away at his ideology, as he gradually realised that sweeping generalisations about Muslims were no better than judging people on the colour of their skin. Often in the past, it was not considered racist to attack Muslims on the pedantic grounds that they are a religion, rather than a race. The English Defence League may have done Britain a favour by highlighting this continuing flaw in its efforts to stamp out intolerance, and the world should take notice that the UK’s efforts to combat racism may even have made the leader of its most notorious far-right organisation ashamed of his own prejudice.

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst.