Yesterday morning, in a surprising twist to the confusing story of the English Defence League, the movement's leaders announced that they were quitting. A statement released by the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, said Tommy Robinson and Kev Carroll were abandoning their marauding band of bigots because "they feel they can no longer keep extremist elements at bay".
It seems odd that Robinson is only now getting pangs of guilt after four and a half years spent spearheading a bunch of modern day blackshirts. I mean, he shared a platform with someone whose speech consisted of "send the black cunts home" as recently as May. Then there was the time he was arrested for trying to occupy a mosque, and the time last week when he tried to intimidate an anti-EDL group by stalking completely the wrong person and posting his address on Twitter. So had Tom and Kev really had a change of heart? I decided to head to last night's press conference in Paddington, London to try to make sense of it all.
After arriving at the Montague Hotel to find the kind of commotion you'd expect, we were led down to the basement. Just as people were beginning to get antsy, the star attractions entered the room; Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of Quilliam looking like a football manager introducing his prized new signing, along with the EDL’s fallen soldiers, Tommy Robinson and Kev Carroll, and finally Usama Hasan, a Senior Researcher at Quilliam.
Maajid was first to speak, explaining why Tommy and Kev had been taken in by Quilliam. The organisation's co-founder talked about his time as a jihadist, and how his membership of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group had led to him being locked away in an Egyptian prison. But Amnesty International came to his aid, fighting to free Maajid from jail on the basis that he was a political prisoner. In the end, he was able to leave both prison and the goal of global jihad behind him.
"When Tommy here came to me and said that he wants to reach out in a similar way… I would be a very bad human being if I didn’t extend to them both that chance which Amnesty extended to me," he said. "The future needs to be better, it needs to positive, it needs to be inclusive, it needs to be British for all of us together. We need to challenge those who undermine that vision of togetherness and of Britishness."
Given that Kev Carroll used a Tower Hamlets rally to describe Islam as a "bloodthirsty cult" as recently as September, I couldn’t help but wonder if Maajid was lending legitimacy to the very people who've spent years undermining his vision of multi-faith hand-holding and bi-weekly community fetes.
Left - right: Tommy Robinson, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, and Kev Carroll.
At points, it appeared as though Tommy Robinson was fighting to hold back tears. He looked shattered and told the press he'd only had 45 minutes sleep the previous night, so momentous was this decision. Ever a master of political rhetoric, he started with a wild understatement followed by a lie: "First, I’ll apologise that what I’ve said hasn’t resonated individually with Muslims," he said. "I don’t hate Muslims. I’ve said the whole way through that I don’t hate Muslims."
Launching into his reasoning for quitting the EDL, he revealed that he'd given his leadership of the group some serious thought during the 18 weeks he spent in solitary confinement last year for using a false passport. It was then, he said, that he first started having doubts about the direction of the violent, anti-Islam street team he was leading – doubts that were temporarily cast aside following the murder of Lee Rigby and which have resurfaced as it's dawned on him that loads of EDL supporters are far-right extremists.
"For the last few years, I’ve seen it as part of the solution… it may have become part of the problem, which is not what I have wanted," he said. "When someone turns up at a demonstration and they lift up their top and it's got a picture of a mosque on it and it says ‘Boom’, it's my face that everyone here reports as a racist. It’s me that takes the flak from it. I have not once supported that or believed it."
It was then that the room collectively sighed with sympathy for this hapless victim of press misrepresentation. The poor guy; you lead a gang of thugs who often sing about burning down mosques for a mere four and a half years and suddenly lazy journalists and the general public start assuming that you agree with them. Tommy just can't catch a break.
His propensity for pure propaganda was on display as he started claiming that, "The EDL is in a position where it can put more people on the street than it has ever been able to. At that moment, we’ve made the decision." Which seems like a weird thing to boast about, considering a lot of these new recruits are presumably the kind of extremists Robinson is supposedly leaving the group to avoid. And, of course, there's the fact his claim was a complete lie; the recent EDL demo in Tower Hamlets got a turnout out of around 500, around a sixth of the kind of attendance they were getting in their post-Rigby heyday.
Then came the questions from the floor. Robinson is a slippery customer in an interview. His technique of talking so quickly and for so long – endlessly repeating himself until you completely forget what your question was – is a challenge to even the sharpest of journalists. However, the first question was a particularly sharp one: If Robinson didn’t hate all Muslims, why did he say in May that "Islam is the enemy"? And why did he say in September that there shouldn’t be any more mosques in the UK?
"I’ve said certain things in the past – certain things I stick to and certain things I don’t stick to," came the response. "What this process is about is us sitting down together, putting [it all out] on the table and moving forward."
He is also incredibly gifted in his ability to completely contradict himself within the same sitting. Apparently journalists are always not listening to him enough, or listening too much but to the wrong bits. He demonstrated that best when, having been presented with cast iron examples of his own racism, someone asked if he was changing his values or merely his tactics.
The four likely lads.
"A lot of the people here will think I’m changing tactics, but that’s because they haven’t listened to me for four and a half years," he answered. "My message hasn’t been heard. No one’s actually been listening to what I’ve been saying… That’s been lost in translation because people have been throwing bottles, smashing things up, chanting slogans."
Kev Carroll noted another important point that has been gravely misunderstood. "Does anybody here know what the initials stand for?" he asked the audience. "It actually equates to ‘Equality, Diversity and Liberty’." He didn't seem to be joking, but everyone laughed anyway.
What the future holds was fleshed out for us by Maajid, who said that Quilliam will educate the ex-EDLers on the crucial differences between Islamism and Islam, as well as training on how to engage in the political process. Which seems kind of patronising to anyone following Quilliam's cause; most people don't need lessons on how not to be a racist, and anyone who does probably isn't in the best position to lead the fight against extremism.
When asked if leaving the EDL meant a foray into mainstream party politics, Tommy said, "No, it doesn’t." It seems that they want to continue being a pressure group, just one that lobbies politicians rather than throws beer cans at innocent strangers in hijabs.
Even though Tommy apologised to Muslims who have "felt fear because of my actions", there was little at the press conference to suggest that he and Kev have changed anything other than their taste for spending a lot of time and effort travelling around the country to scare people. As Kev put it, "Protest on the street only has a shelf life of so long. You have to evolve and we recognise that. We’re still singing the same songs, but we’re singing off the same hymn sheet [as Quilliam] when it comes to attacking Islamic extremists."
Maajid pointed out that this was only a first step and noted that, if the move turns out to be a failure, at least the EDL has been decapitated. I suppose he kind of has a point, but I can’t help but wonder if Quilliam have simply taken that same head and put it on a body that's currently being taught how to make reassuring, statesmanlike gestures rather than strutting through the streets sieg-heiling and punching everyone.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13
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