Andrew Neather writing for The Evening Standard.
It was one of the more improbable reconciliations of recent years. Earlier this week the leader of the far-Right English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, sat at a press conference alongside Maajid Nawaz, executive director of the Quilliam foundation, to announce that he was leaving the EDL. Robinson told startled reporters that he was making the move, brokered by Quilliam, because of the EDL’s alleged takeover by fascists and neo-Nazis.
The epiphany of Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and his deputy Kevin Carroll was odd enough. Robinson has always seemed happy enough ranting to the EDL’s tattooed thugs at anti-Muslim demonstrations. The day before the press conference, he was tweeting about the French Front National’s recent electoral success; last week he identified the house of the editor of an anti-EDL website (he got the wrong man and wrong address).
Yet Quilliam’s move is almost as surprising. Founded in 2008 by Nawaz and Ed Husain, both former members of the controversial Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, the think-tank is dedicated to opposing Islamist extremism. But its founders and many of its senior staff are Muslims and its roots are clearly within British Muslim communities. So why this move?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a departure,” says Usama Hasan, Quilliam’s senior researcher in Islamic studies, who sat next to Robinson at Tuesday’s press conference. “We’ve been tackling far-Right extremism from the start — there’s a symbiotic relationship between it and jihadism.”
Hasan, a former Islamist and briefly a jihadi in Afghanistan, says: “Muslims were saying, ‘Why aren’t people talking about other kinds of extremism too?’ Here’s the proof that we are.” Quilliam has previously produced research on the BNP, and two former EDL activists, Nick Jode and Dean James, appeared at a Quilliam event in July this year. Hasan also points to the joint march by EDL members and Islamic charity Jimas in Ipswich last June in memory of Lee Rigby, the soldier killed by Islamic extremists in Woolwich.
Nevertheless, to date most of Quilliam’s work has been in research on Islamism: it has produced reports on subjects from British mosques and jihadism online to the role of jihadists in Libya and Syria. It declares itself dedicated to working against “Westophobic ideological influences and social insularity” in Muslim communities. It also backs the work of the anti-extremist Khudi movement in Pakistan.
Its defiant stance against political Islam has brought it criticism from both some Muslims and parts of the Left, in part over its alleged support for US policies in the Middle East. Yet the organisation has not been uncritical of the foreign policy of the US and its allies, for example slamming Israel’s “Cast Lead” invasion of Gaza in 2008/9 and the US drone killing of al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.
It has also faced criticism over its acceptance of government funding under the Preventing Violent Extremism programme, and over the substantial salaries paid to some senior staff in the past. But its Home Office and Foreign Office funding had ended by 2011: now it subsists largely on private donations. Nevertheless, Nawaz was invited to Downing Street to address the Prime Minister’s task force on countering extremism in the wake of Rigby’s death, and he has Nick Clegg’s ear. Indeed, in July he was selected as Liberal Democrat candidate at the next election in Hampstead and Kilburn, a marginal currently held by Labour’s Glenda Jackson.
Whatever its past stance on far-Right extremism, the engagement with Robinson, whom Hasan and Nawaz met for the first time only six weeks ago, marks a change of emphasis. Husain, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, comments: “The alternative of leaving people to fester in extremism unless they renounce all of their former views in their first penance is misguided.”
Nawaz has compared the hatred that Robinson now faces to the reaction of his own former Islamist comrades when he turned his back on jihad. He says Quilliam “hopes to continue supporting Tommy and Kevin in their journey to counter Islamism and neo-Nazi extremism”. He has also justified negotiation with Robinson because, he claims, it has “decapitated” the EDL.
Certainly the move by Robinson has provoked outrage within parts of the EDL. “Tommy Robinson has put himself in a lot of danger with this,” says one veteran EDL watcher. “There are a lot of threats on sites used by EDL members.”
The reaction of those even further to the Right has been apoplectic. BNP chairman Nick Griffin has raged about this “betrayal”, which he intriguingly puts down to the “decision of Robinson’s Zionist puppet masters to pull the plug on the EDL”. But others have questioned how much difference it will make to the EDL and similar groups.
The EDL, founded in 2009, has been in decline of late. Robinson, a media-hungry figure, faces criminal charges next week for obstructing police in June while marching to the scene of Rigby’s death (he served several weeks in prison early this year for attempting to travel to the US on someone else’s passport). Independent columnist Owen Jones says Robinson has made a cynical decision to abandon his organisation just as it was about to go down.
“The problem is that some liberals have been very gullible,” says Jones. “My fear is that Quilliam is facilitating the mainstreaming of his bigotry. He hasn’t renounced his views.”
“I wouldn’t agree,” says Hasan. He claims that Robinson has always been against Islamism — political Islam — rather than Muslims, although he concedes that Robinson has made unfortunate “blanket statements” in the past. And Robinson has indeed railed against Muslim “paedos” and mosque- building in the past.
More intriguingly, the watchdog EDL News points to a blogpost this week by far-Right US activists Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer of pressure group Stop Islamization of America. The pair were barred by the Home Secretary from visiting the UK to speak at an EDL rally last June. EDL News believes their language suggests they could be planning a new far-Right grouping with Robinson. Hasan dismisses Gellar and Spencer as “islamophobes”.
Ed Husain says: “EDL leaders should be applauded for their courage but we should remain vigilant of their public discourse in coming months.” The danger is that if Quilliam now owns Tommy Robinson’s defection, it also risks owning his next outburst.
This article was originally published in ‘The Evening Standard’ on 11 October 2013.
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