I awoke this morning to news that Tommy Robinson, the head rabble-rouser of the far-right British street gang, the English Defence League (EDL), had decided to leave the group.
Surprisingly, the anti-extremist group Quilliam said that it facilitated the move and that Robinson—a man whose criminal record includes prison time for assaulting a police officer, forging a passport, convictions for drug offenses and assaults, and a court-ordered rehabilitation for inciting violence—had an epiphany and decided that he wanted to combat “far right extremism.”
Kevin Caroll, the group’s deputy director, also quit the group.
In recent years, the EDL—a group that amounts to a rag-tag assemblage of white, skin-headed soccer hooligans with tattoos, short tempers, and intolerance for anyone with brown skin—has whipped up much of the anti-Muslim fervor that continues to rock Britain. They’ve called for mosques to be burned, demanded that the Quran be destroyed, insisted that Muslim citizens be deported, hurled slurs, insults and derogatory statements at minorities, and in 2011, their members stomped on the heads and necks of two Muslims, fracturing the jaw of one.
Just this week—days, even, before his bombshell announcement—Robinson (whose real name is Stephen Lennon) was still trolling his usual nonsense: “Muslims created Islamophobia themselves,” he tweeted. “Sharia legalizes pedophilia,” he said in another.
Call me a cynic, but I’m skeptical. While I’d like to believe that Robinson actually came to his senses and had a sincere change of heart about extremism, I doubt it. Here’s why: he—and the EDL—can’t survive for long on the fringes of society and he knows that.
Extremists ultimately hope to take their messages to the mainstream—to gain credibility and legitimacy among a wider audience—rather than flounder around on the margins and die out. With increasingly negative light being shed on the EDL, the only move left for Robinson was to jump ship and profess that after years of careful reflection, he would be moving on. He must believe that once he’s no longer with the group, people will listen to him. Heck, they may even buy his “I was once an anti-Muslim extremist” book (which happens to fit well into the growing niche of the “I was once a Muslim extremist” category).
Two serious questions remain for Robinson and for Quilliam, which facilitated his departure. First, will Robinson’s message really change? Just because he’s no longer with the EDL and claims to reject the increasingly violent direction the group had taken doesn’t mean that he has seen the light about hate speech; it doesn’t mean that his invectives about Muslims will be any less inflammatory or that he will change his views on Quran burning, Muslim immigration, deportation, mosque construction, etc. It certainly doesn’t mean that he will work to foster better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. It could very well be the case that this new chapter is a tactical retreat that will provide Robinson with new comrades and a new platform—one that reaches a broader audience and casts him as a more plausible voice, only with a slightly toned-down message.
Hate at half the volume is still hate.
Second, will Robinson reject the extremists with whom he has often collaborated—people like Bishop-turned-basement-blogger Robert Spencer and shock jockette of the web, Pamela Geller? It’s unlikely considering that both Spencer and Geller rushed to applaud Robinson’s move and gleefully added their names to the list of people abandoning the EDL. Preening before their trollish readership, the duo expressed their desire to work with Robinson in the future (Somebody cue up Phil Collins’s 1998 hit “True Colors”).
Geller claims she withdrew her support for the EDL back in June but that doesn’t explain why Robinson—who was the EDL’s leader until today—continued to serve on the board of her hate group Stop the Islamization of Nations (SION) and, according to her website, still does. Civil rights groups have designated Spencer and Geller as anti-Muslim “hate group” leaders and they were banned from entering the UK (to attend an EDL rally with Robinson) precisely on those grounds. One has to wonder if that ban—which is a major blemish on their already-piss-poor record—factored into their sudden decision to steal Robinson’s thunder with their own gimmicky announcement (you can almost hear Spencer whining, “Me too, me too! I reject those bad guys too!”)
If Robinson is serious about his commitment to fighting extremism, he’ll have to do more than just rebuff violence and street thugs. He’ll have to denounce the cancer that is at the root of those things and cut ties with all extremists and voices of hate who seek to spread it in society. Until then, this is hardly the shining moment it appears to be.
This piece originally appeared at Religion Dispatches on October 9, 2013.