Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson writing for The Times.

They are the most unlikely double act. One is the former leader of the English Defence League, the nationalist street protest movement, the other a former radical Islamist who founded the anti-extremist think-tank Quilliam. But Tommy Robinson, a white working class lad from Luton, and Maajid Nawaz, a British Pakistani Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, have more in common than you might think.

Both have been in prison — Mr Robinson for using a false passport, Mr Nawaz for belonging to the banned organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir — both have faced physical attacks and death threats, and both also claim to have had an extraordinary change of heart and announced this week that they would be working together to combat extremism.

Although Mr Nawaz, who has advised both David Cameron and Tony Blair on counter-terrorism, refused to sit down with Mr Robinson when he first met him, because he was suspicious of his motives, he said: “I grew up in Essex, with very serious neo-Nazi violence. I trust myself to be able to recognise a racist and I don’t believe Tommy is a racist.”

The former Islamist sees parallels with his own experience. “I was given a second chance and so I want to help someone else to have one. I’ve left a group and I’ve lost my family as a result of it. I said to Tommy, ‘I know what this feels like, I know the stigma you’re going to get and the backlash in your own community and the distrust from others. I will be ready to help you through this transition’.”

Mr Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is leaving the EDL because he believes it has now been taken over by extremists. “I saw the EDL as the voice of working-class people but because it’s a nationalist organisation it attracted some people with another agenda. There were neo-Nazis there and I didn’t want to be the public face of that.”

It was an emotional as much as a political decision. “I was travelling all around the country having to rally this organisation that hadn’t been planned. Everyone wants to have a drink with you. It was when I was in jail away from it all that I had time to reflect. I decided things had to change.”

He was nervous about the reaction to his announcement from former supporters. “In the past the problems and violence have been coming at me from the Muslim community, but now the problems are going to come at me from my own community. I haven’t gone back to Luton yet. I thought, ‘I would rather walk through Lahore’. I was absolutely terrified when I was doing it but actually I’m getting a lot of support.”

There are some who remain sceptical about the conversion of Mr Robinson, who declared after the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich: “This is Islam.” He will not renounce the aims of the organisation he set up but he does admit he has sometimes gone too far with his language and is willing to apologise to Muslims for causing offence.

“I knew that we were putting pressure on and probably annoying ordinary Muslims but I thought the community needed pressure on it to realise how frustrated people were with the circumstances. Then I started asking asked myself, ‘What do I want? What is the EDL for? We are making a hell of a noise worldwide but what are we trying to achieve?’ I kept saying all Muslims should integrate and assimilate but they’re not going to do that if we’re walking through the streets shouting about their prophet. Inevitably to get what we want we have to work with Muslims.”

Although he says it didn’t start as “us and them … it became us and them because I came under attack and I had threats against my kids so I would get p***ed off. It turned into white workingclass lads having battles with usually Pakistani youth. I’ve said things I’ve regretted but I’ve felt under attack”.

He insisted that he has Muslim friends. “I could sit here now and ring a Pakistani from Luton who is my mate. He came to my wedding and we’ve still been friends the whole way through this. When I’m talking in anger or on stage I’m not thinking about him.”

He has agreed to take religious instruction from Quilliam. Mr Nawaz said: “I do believe he has made some very serious gross generalisations in language before but he has assured me that he’s not anti-Muslim — what he’s concerned about is Islamist ideology — although, as he will admit, he has sometimes mistakenly referred to that as Islam.”

There is also, he thinks, snobbery towards Mr Robinson. “Tommy is coming from a certain cultural milieu. There’s a working class banter. Of course he has said things which he would admit are stupid but there is also a bias. People are trying to trip him up.”

There is also the question of violence. EDL protests have often involved fights — Mr Robinson himself has been convicted of assault. He said: “Of course that’s wrong, but we’re four years in and no one’s died, I think that’s amazing with all the anger there is. No one wants to see our country burn but I don’t think anybody understands how big a problem this is and how angry people are.”

He does not regret founding a nationalist movement. “It had to happen because people felt they didn’t have a voice. The reason it’s been a phenomenon is not because there are a load of racists out but because people are annoyed and frustrated that there’s been no debate and when you’re not even allowed to talk about things because you are called an extremist.”

In his view, UKIP is tapping into the same phenomenon as the EDL: “There are similarities. I’ve had meetings with many middle class people who are completely supportive of the EDL but they’ re not on the street. I think UKIP has ridden on the back of the success of the EDL, [which] has woken up a lot of the problems that there are in the country. It’s got everyone talking. It’s brought to the forefront the problems that surround immigration.”

Although he is not tempted to join UKIP — “I’ve never thought about joining any political party, that’s not what working class lads like me do” — he understands the appeal of Nigel Farage. “UKIP has managed to appeal to Middle England and the working class … That’s why [Nigel Farage] is always with a pint, saying what he thinks they want to be said.”

Most EDL supporters are not racists, according to Mr Robinson. “They’re just seeking to defend their country. These Islamist groups are out of control in towns like Luton.”

There is a mixture of reasons that drive people to protest. “When you know that young girls are being sexually groomed in your community and that the police know but no one is talking about it or doing anything about it then that’s when people go out on the street.

“It’s because of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. The police were petrified to even talk about it, let alone arrest these men. All these things add to the frustration.”

Faith schools are a problem, in his view. “We have Muslim and non-Muslim playgrounds. When Luton played at Wembley six coaches turned up of Muslim children. The council leader said, ‘That’s integration’. I said, ‘No it’s not — fill those coaches with black kids, white kids and Muslim kids. How do you think everyone feels if they see you, as a council, are sending all the Muslim children for free to football?’”

On the issue of the veil, he said: “I think you should treat everyone equally. My mate went into the bank with his hood up and they said take your hood down but there was a woman in front with a burka on. That’s not fair. It’s double standards.”

Too often, he thinks, left-wing councils are to blame. “There’s not one Muslim in this country that cares about people celebrating Christmas, but then you get some far-left person who says we have to call it Winter Festival. That makes people really angry. There’s a sense of losing your British identity, a sense of favourable treatment for others . . . I think we should have a halt on all immigration for the next five years and sort the problems out.”

Mr Nawaz does not agree. “I thought the ‘Go Home’ vans were ridiculous. The Lib Dems are traditionally less anti-immigration than the Conservatives but I don’t think this is a party political issue. The stuff Tommy and I both care about are far-right racism, social cohesion and integration.”

He agrees with Mr Robinson that people should not cover their faces in banks, schools or hospitals. “That’s British common sense,” he said. “Muslims themselves suffer if, for the sake of political correctness and cultural sensitivity externally, you encourage internal repression. On the veil, there’s got to be a line between aggressive secularism and aggressive Islamism.”

This article was originally published in ‘The Times’ on 12 October 2013.

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