Extremist ‘thug’ leader embraces democracy
Until this week, Tommy Robinson was the leader of a far-right movement blamed for inciting racist hatred. Now he has put the EDL behind him – but is it just a change of tactics?
Tommy Robinson may well be one of Britain’s most controversial men. As the founder of the English Defence League, he became the face of an aggressive anti-Islamic ideology and a street protest movement which constantly threatens to spill over into ugly confrontation. He has been a called a thug, a Nazi, a menace to democracy and human rights.
Today, however, the mainstream media are subjecting the far-right leader to an unfamiliar type of attention: praise. Why? Because as of this week, Robinson has resigned from his position as head of the EDL. ‘I acknowledge the dangers of far-right extremism,’ his statement said, ‘and the ongoing need to combat Islamic extremism not with violence but with better, democratic ideas.’
Robinson has not turned his back on all his past beliefs. He still thinks that mosques need to be ‘regulated’ and that Muslims should be prevented from migrating to the UK – at least until ‘the problem of extremism’ is dealt with. And he calls his former comrades ‘the best people in my life’.
But he has also renounced violence, condemned the most radical elements of the EDL and declared that ‘street demonstrations are no longer productive’.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, the man who helped Robinson to reach this decision is himself a Muslim. And not just any Muslim: Maajid Nawaz is a former Islamic fundamentalist who was once the mouthpiece for a militant anti-Western organisation. In 2007 Nawaz resigned from Hizb ut-Tahrir and reforged himself into an opponent of extremism and an advocate for human rights.
Nawaz hopes that Robinson is now beginning a journey similar to his own. But not everybody is convinced. ‘Let us be very clear,’ said one commentator, ‘Tommy Robinson has not renounced his racist, fascist ideology.’ His statement did not even express regret for former tactics, saying merely that street protests were ‘no longer productive’.
Is this really a Damascene moment? Or just a new way of spreading a toxic dogma?
Think twice before you bring this thug into your embrace, warn Tommy Robinson’s sharpest opponents: he is still the same viper he always was. Now he has ‘taken his Islamophobic, hate-filled message mainstream’, indeed, he may present more of a threat than ever.
Give the man a chance, says Maajid Nawaz and supporters of his anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation. The journey from violent radicalism to liberalism and decency is long and tough: Robinson has devoted five whole years to the ideology and culture of the far right. It’s totally unreasonable to expect him to renounce all that overnight. This may be only a first step, they say, but it is a remarkable one too.
- Should someone who has incited racism and violence be forgiven and welcomed back into the mainstream?
- Is it healthy to change and develop your beliefs, or weak?
- Describe a time when you changed your mind about something very important to you. Was it difficult to do?
- Imagine you are a journalist who has been asked to interview Tommy Robinson. Write down five questions you would ask him.
Some People Say...
“Once a fascist, always a fascist.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I waste my time thinking about crazy fringe groups like the EDL?
- They might be a fringe group, but their support is not insignificant. At their height, EDL rallies could attract thousands of supporters, and around one in ten British people who have heard of the movement would consider joining it. EDL marches are usually accompanied by a rise in anti-Muslim violence in the area and often end in fighting and mass arrests.
- Still, they’re not about to take over the country are they?
- No. But far-right anti-immigrant opinions are on the rise all over Europe, and street movements like the EDL are an important part of that. Their presence has a powerful effect on political discourse and some claim that a similar ideology is seeping slowly into the mainstream.
- Tommy Robinson
- Born Stephen Yaxley and renamed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon after being adopted. Tommy Robinson is the pseudonym he uses in public life.
- English Defence League
- A movement founded in 2009 to defend England against Islamic extremism, which its members believe is the greatest threat facing Britain today. Members of the EDL have espoused Nazi ideology, chanted racist slogans and been involved in racially-motivated attacks.
- Someone who subscribes unconditionally to a set of rigid principles and traditions, such as those laid out in a religious text. Muslim fundamentalists believe that Sharia law derived from a strict reading of the Quran should govern every aspect of life; Christian fundamentalists believe in the literal truth of the Bible.
- Damascene moment
- According to the New Testament, Saint Paul the Apostle was a persecutor of Christians in his early life. Then one day, on the road to Damascus, an epiphany came to him and he decided to devote the rest of his life to the teachings of Jesus. This story is now a byword for any sudden change of heart or mind.