Or: Stop Holy Wars: A New Hope, starring Obi Tom Kenobe and Maa-Jedi Nawaz.
On Tuesday 8 October Tommy Robinson left the English Defence League, the organisation he founded in 2009. In doing so he also made a commitment to continuing his fight against Islamism – and other forms of extremism – by working in partnership with Maajid Nawaz and the counter-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation. Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation “facilitated” the departure of Robinson, and Robinson’s co-leader Kevin Carroll, from the EDL.
Robinson’s reasons for leaving were that the EDL had become impossible to control; toxic far-right elements having infected the organisation meaning there was now little prospect of the EDL being a positive force. As the public face of the EDL Robinson was blamed for every inadequacy of the organisation. He felt he was spending more time battling extremists within the EDL than he was Islamism. He also felt the EDL’s tactics of street protest were no longer productive.
This was big, big news, and completely unexpected. Some will say Robinson and Nawaz have entered a death embrace. I’d say they’ve taken a huge leap of faith together, that this is definitely a positive step forward, and that we should enthusiastically applaud both of them for their courage and wisdom.
There have been predictable accusations against Robinson that he has sold out, and a sense of nervousness from his supporters that he will now have to drastically dilute his message. There is a fear he will sand away his uncompromising edginess and will now have to adopt the toe-curling, offence-neutral, treacly language of meaningless and ineffective “interfaith dialogue”. A change in his approach is inevitable, and probably even necessary, but I see little danger of Robinson trading the hell that has been the last four years of his life for a seat on a comfy interfaith sofa as a regular on the Islam Channel.
Robinson had many enemies before last week: the hard left, the “liberal” left, moderate Muslims, other opponents of Islamism who wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole, and not to mention demented, bloodthirsty jihadis who were caged for plotting to bomb an EDL rally. Although his overnight rehabilitation has presumably made his life slightly less chaotic than it was a week ago, let’s not forget he now has an additional category of enemy: former EDLers who feel betrayed by him.
In July, after forcing myself to think for myself about Robinson rather than believe everything I was hearing, I drastically changed my opinions on him. I wrote a lengthy post in which I laid on some pretty heavy praise and I was very moved when Robinson said how encouraged he was by it.
It became clear to me in July that there was much, much more to Robinson than met the eye. Here was a brave young man who was utterly committed to defeating Islamism and who was voluntarily placing himself under the kind of pressure which would break simple men: constant accusations against him of racism and bigotry; arrests; public enemy number 1 status; an infamous public reputation – taken as fact by so many – little different to canine excrement; carrying the blame for anything done by anyone under the guise or supposed guise of the EDL; goodness knows what strain on his family life; and of course worrying about death threats and murder plots.
I don’t think Robinson has sold out. On the contrary, he has demonstrated just how committed he is to tackling Islamism because he has cut himself off from the very organisation that has been his life’s work for four years, and whose power base was his lifeblood. I think there are few people in this country who are more committed to slaying the Islamist beast than Robinson.
In his interviews this week Robinson has appeared almost to regret the street protests and the “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah” chants at EDL marches. This might just be the impression I’ve had; maybe he doesn’t regret them. In any case I don’t think he has any reason to regret them. The EDL had (and still has) every right to do street protests, within the law of course, and to chant whatever they want about “Allah”. It’s worth remembering that Robinson has reached this new stage in his career precisely because he and his supporters exercised their precious rights to protest, to free speech and to free association in the grip of vice-like pressure and intimidation. What we have seen is a real-time example of these freedoms working, not failing.
It’s been disappointing to see how Robinson’s defection from the EDL has been constantly framed by the question “but has he really changed?”. This misses the point. He didn’t really have to change anyway. He wasn’t racist before and so he doesn’t have to prove he’s “stopped” being racist now. He condemned violence before and he still condemns it now. He didn’t “hate all Muslims” before and so he doesn’t have to prove he doesn’t hate all Muslims now. The key change he has made is disassociating himself from the organisation he founded and nurtured, and which was his power base. He has acknowledged that the EDL vehicle has performed its function and that he was increasingly a passenger on a madcap journey rather than the actual driver. He has now jumped out of the vehicle and effectively let it fall over a cliff. Someone might salvage the wreck but that’s not his concern. He knows there are seriously nasty elements within the EDL and he wants to demonstrate once and for all that he wants nothing to do with them. This is tough on the decent people remaining within the EDL, but that’s the price to pay. It happens.
The EDL has served its purpose. It has given Robinson his voice, and what a voice it is. But don’t forget just how tough life has been for Robinson. It’s taken him about four years to battle for a right that shouldn’t have taken him even four minutes to obtain: the right to speak freely, and the right not to be called a racist for opposing a totalitarian, inhumane ideology that poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom, the Middle East and to humanity itself.
To focus merely on Robinson, though, is to do his joint venture partner Maajid Nawaz a huge disservice. Both these men have shown incredible vision and bravery by collaborating, and both have significant skin in this game.
To many Muslims, as well as all those employed in the Islamophobia and anti-racism industries, Nawaz is siding with the arch-enemy. He is forming an alliance with a man who everyone has been led to believe was (and as far as many are concerned, still is) a far-right, racist, bigoted Nazi thug. Robinson was the poster boy of unwavering kuffar defiance. Lest we forget, the price paid by “disloyal” Muslims is often a brutally heavy one. Nawaz has therefore invited severe pressure on his own shoulders from his fellow Muslims as well as anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who has a lukewarm approach to tackling Islamism. Even away from his anti-extremism work Nawaz’s decision has made his life far less comfortable: he is the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Hampstead and Kilburn. Seeing Nawaz jump into bed with Robinson might be difficult for voters to stomach. Some residents of the north London constituency will pause for thought before putting a cross against Nawaz’s name come May 2015. The “piece of paper” Nawaz can proudly clutch in his hands and show to sceptical voters, though, is a death certificate bearing the words English Defence League.
Like Robinson, Nawaz hasn’t sold out in his fight against Islamism. He has demonstrated his commitment to it. He has effectively told everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike: “I am really, really serious about defeating Islamism and I will form alliances with whomever I consider, in good conscience, to be part of the solution. I won’t let you ignore the voice of ordinary white Englishmen. They have very legitimate concerns. You cannot simply hurl accusations of racism and bigotry against Robinson. This will not make him go away. This will not make Islamism go away. Now, what are you doing to fight extremism other than crying Islamophobia or racism when someone draws a cartoon of a prophet?”
Nawaz knows that fighting extremism isn’t just a matter of pinning a badge saying “moderate” to your lapel and taking part in interfaith love-fests. This hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. He knows there are plenty of uncomfortable truths to be told; truths that Robinson has shown the bravery and skills to communicate time and time again. I can’t tell you just how encouraged I am when I see Nawaz put clear water between himself and phoney moderate, cry-baby taqiyya merchants like Mehdi Hasan and Mo Ansar. By bear-hugging Robinson so publicly Nawaz has pushed unpleasant individuals like Hasan and Ansar, and worse than useless organisations like Tell MAMA and Unite Against Fascism, even further away from him. This is highly significant. His unexpected move on the chessboard isolates them and hopefully puts them out of business.
It’s not all champagne and skittles. I have previously heard Nawaz lapse into occasional Islamophobia rhetoric, for example when talking about people’s opposition to halal food, and obviously I’m not exactly over the moon about that. Halal slaughter is barbaric and it creates employment discrimination in the supply chain. It can be distinguished from kosher slaughter on the basis of how widespread it is, and because it represents an oh so subtle power play by Islam. I have never had kosher food imposed on me in a secular environment such as a work canteen. However, I do see halal food in my work canteen every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (I only work Monday to Friday). I don’t oppose halal slaughter because I’m “Islamophobic”. I oppose it because I don’t want sentient creatures to die in agony even if they’re destined for my stomach; because I think employment discrimination is bad; because I’m concerned about the religious privilege in our legal system that allows halal slaughter; and because I’m concerned that secular environments are becoming increasingly religious – by which I mean increasingly Islamic. Oh and I’m also concerned at the relentless growth of halal-slaughtered food which has largely been caused by…a crippling reluctance of ordinary people to criticise it or even ask questions about it, on pain of being summarily convicted of “Islamophobia”. So please, Maajid, let’s throttle back ever so slightly on the use of this term. Deal?
But without getting sucked into a vortex of banal interfaith drivel let’s be positive, let’s look towards the future and – as a freshly-elected President Obama said – let’s fix our eyes firmly on the horizon.
Tommy, Maajid, I salute you both. I thank you both for having the courage and vision to embrace each other. There will be tough times and disagreements ahead for you, of that I am sure, but you must keep going because it’s possible that the very stability of the United Kingdom might be determined by the success of your relationship. No pressure there then. Like the banks in the lead up to the credit crunch, this thing is just too big to fail.