A proper apology is difficult. A proper apology means understanding and explaining – in grueling specifics – exactly how and why you've been such a complete dickhead. Why, for example, you figured the best way to protest Islamic extremism was to hang out with people who believe "patriotism" means slapping on a flat cap, barging into a mosque and doling out anti-grooming leaflets to bewildered Muslims.
Matthew Lester knows a lot about apologies. He's been making them for almost a month now, ever since he left the far-right street team Britain First and began visiting mosques and Islamic centres to make amends for all that bizarre, belligerent behaviour by his former pals. On November 9, he announced on Twitter: "I have been an unwitting twat [...] The making up starts now."
Reading Matthew's tweet, I thought it would be interesting to see what the making up might look like, and how long it might last. So I accompanied him to Crayford Mosque in Bexley, one of the places Britain First – led by former BNP councillor Paul Golding – had staged an "invasion" into back in July, demanding that the Imams remove signs indicating separate entrances for men and women, telling them, "When you respect women, we'll respect your mosques."
I asked 25-year-old Matthew how he first got involved with the group. "Well, earlier this year I saw these guys were going after radical preachers – extremists like Anjem Choudary," he recalled. "I actually thought they might tackle the problem, so I joined. But getting to know other members and hearing them talk, it became more obvious racism was going on. There was talk about minorities not being a problem, as long as they stay the minority. That made it about race. I thought, 'What is going on?'
"A lot of them are obsessed with Islam," he added. "They see it as a religion of extremists, and that ideology is all they see. I got drawn in, too. Like any gang, you get caught up in it. But I wouldn't take part in the invasions and I really wasn't racist; I'd had Muslim friends at school. I realised I'd become part of something hateful, and I really didn't want that at all. And now I want to apologise and find out a bit more about what life's like for ordinary Muslims."
Stepping inside the Crayford place of worship, Matthew was greeted by Az, one of the mosque's young leaders. They had arranged for Matthew to make a short speech in front of the congregation before the Imam led Jumu'ah, the Friday prayer. A little nervous, the former far-right activist stood up and said: "Do not let Britain First give the perception of what we think of you. They are a small minority. If we work together we can beat Britain First. Thank you for accepting my apologies."
Afterwards, Matthew got a lot of handshakes and thank yous ("Well done, mate – that took guts"), then sat down for a cup of tea with Az and the Imam, Hafiz. They talked through the need for a separate prayer room for women – "It's so we don't get distracted," explained Az – the basic tenets of Islam and how it's important to respect people of different faiths. Matthew listened more than he spoke.
"I'm very pleased you came and said what you said," the Imam told him. "We appreciate it. Sometimes it's the extremes who provoke a reaction in each other, but this is not the majority of people anywhere. Take care of yourself, and don't put yourself in danger. This place is open to you all the time."
After his experience at Crayford, Matthew went to visit the Central Mosque of Brent, East London Mosque and the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid. The senior figures who greeted him were slightly bemused each time, but very friendly and happy to hear about his change of heart.
"They've all been nice people, and they've been very relaxed about it," said Matthew afterwards. "I'm learning all the time – like when the guy at East London Mosque said Anjem Choudary wouldn't be at all welcome there. I hadn't realised that. At the end of the day, knowledge is power. I want to keep doing this – sitting down and talking and showing respect. We're a diverse society, so we're going to have learn about each other and compromise."
Each time I met and spoke to Matthew, he would a talk – a lot – about Britain First. He's continued to receive plenty of abuse online and remains very self-conscious about his status as a defector from the group. "If I post a picture now, it gets a reaction – it seems to wind them up," he told me.
I asked how motivated he was by genuine curiosity about other cultures, and how much the mosque visits were about aggravating his new enemies in Britain First.
"I genuinely want to reach out and meet new people and see how far I can take this. I'd like to visit synagogues and Hindu temples and gurdwaras," he said. "But the thing is, I can't keep quiet about Britain First and all the horrible stuff they're up to. If I keep quiet, Paul Golding wins."
I believed him. No matter how misinformed you've been, the decision to renounce those hateful views and actively open yourself up to a new way of thinking is admirable, especially when your old life keeps popping up in your inbox every time you sign into Facebook.
Now I suppose we just wait and see whether any of Matthew's old Islamophobic mates have a similar sudden moment of clarity.
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