Any attempt to take a nuanced approach to the English Defence League and its supporters’ beliefs is rapidly defeated if you attend an EDL rally. At a recent march near London’s Tower Bridge, the chants included “Mohammed was a paedo – la la la la” and “Shove your fuckin’ Islam [repeat thrice] up your arse”.
For most, such attitudes have long been embodied in the figure of the movement’s leader, Tommy Robinson, whose name is associated in the public mind with words like “racist”, “thug” and “fascist”. But the Luton-based agitator has more recently taken to expressing some unexpected views. In an interview with The Independent before announcing today that he is quitting the EDL, he said: “Here’s the thing – 10 per cent of our lads are dickheads. That’s just the way it is.”
Many would probably consider that estimate short by about 85 to 90 per cent, but political leaders rarely call any of their supporters “dickheads”. Robinson continued in the same self-deprecating vein: “Of course our tactics are questionable. I was chatting to a Muslim woman yesterday. I get how, when we go into a town centre, she feels uncomfortable. I don’t feel happy about that.”
It sounds disingenuous, a way of disarming criticism by pre-empting the disdain that follows him and the EDL’s every move. But Robinson, 30, who runs a tanning salon in his home town and whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has been on a journey in recent months which he insists has opened a schism between him and his unsavoury and unacceptable followers.
The Independent can reveal that while publicly spouting views that call for the closure of mosques and draw no distinction between Britain’s Muslim mainstream and the tiny minority of Islamist extremists, Robinson has been holding discussions with a former jihadi who has himself renounced fundamentalism. Usama Hasan, who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and is now part of the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation, said he had no illusions about the EDL leader’s views but credited him with being ready to deepen his knowledge of Islam and modify his position.
Hasan said: “[Tommy] is guilty of stirring up anti-Muslim hatred. He’s misguided and he waivers – sometimes he’ll say he’s only opposed to Muslim extremists and other times he’ll say that Islam can’t be reformed and all Muslims are potential extremists. But I get the impression he does listen and he’s been doing his reading, and it’s slowly getting through.”
He said he and Robinson had found common ground in the belief that many of Britain’s problems with extreme Islamist belief, which have produced over 100 convicted terrorists, are rooted in Wahhabist teachings and money from Saudi Arabia. Hasan said: “Extremist ideas in this country have been promoted through Saudi money – the vast majority. Probably not realising what the Saudi work was doing in this country, plus it being a strong ally that we didn’t want to upset, the British government allowed that to continue.”
He added that it is only since the 7/7 bombings that the Government has woken up to the full extent of the threat from radical preachers in Britain.
Robinson, who takes his adopted name from a former Luton football hooligan, remained unapologetic about the genesis of his movement and the tactics which have led to numerous confrontations on the streets of British cities since its inception in 2009.
He said: “What choice do we have? No one’s listened to us. When we started out, if we talked to councils and tried to explain to government, or even to Muslims – how many would even talk to us? Not one. They’re only talking to me now because of what we done.”
The question is whether a post-EDL Robinson can now create something that is more than just an ugly rabble of anti-Islamic thugs – a 21st-century updating of the bovver-booted skinheads smashing up Asian-owned newsagents in the 1970s.