Monday, November 04, 2013

Coming in from the cold

When Tommy Robinson and right-hand man Kevin Carroll left the English Defence League early last month, I was sceptical about their motives, suspecting it might all be part of a ploy. So it was with considerable interest that I watched the BBC's Quitting The English Defence League: When Tommy Met Mo this week, a documentary following Robinson's relations with British Muslim Mo Ansar.

The programme revealed that the decision to quit was not as a result of an epiphany but of a gradual process. While Robinson continued to maintain an outwardly firm and hard-line stance, delivering his usual hectoring speeches at EDL rallies, he was privately harbouring doubts about the organisation of which he was the founder and leader and about its membership and political agenda. These doubts developed through his encounters with Ansar but also with other Muslims, including clerics and members of self-styled Muslim "counter-extremism think tank" Quilliam. While Robinson remains guilty of making Islamophobic statements, he nevertheless now claims to appreciate that extremism is the real enemy, not Islam as a whole, and that the solution is to encourage moderate Islam - something which chimes with what Quilliam believe.

You had to feel a bit sorry for Ansar, barred from the momentous press conference because Robinson didn't want him to think he could assume any of the credit - after all, while the conversations with Quilliam's Maajid Nawaz may have been critical, it was Ansar who introduced Robinson to Quilliam (and to the possibility of genuine dialogue) in the first place. That said, the documentary also showed Ansar being challenged on his own supposedly moderate views, indicating that the dogmatic literal interpretation of a holy text is the real problem, whether that text is the Quran or the Bible.

It's too early to gauge the impact of Robinson and Carroll joining forces with Quilliam, or of their abdications on the future of the EDL, but I'm more confident that it's "a step forwards" (to borrow Robinson's own phrase) than I was before watching the documentary.

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