BY SAM WHITE
You may be aware that this week, relations between Tommy Robinson and Maajid Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation broke down completely. For those not up to date on what happened, here’s a summary.
First, there’s Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, and outspoken campaigner against Islamic extremism. Robinson is a deeply controversial figure about whom you can find two competing descriptions:
One is that he’s nothing more than a loudmouthed, racist thug. According to this view, he hates all Muslims (and probably other minorities too) and lacks intelligence, but through his posturing attracts the adoration of similarly minded trolls and extremists. He’s a violent, hard-right street agitator with a criminal record, who seeks to whip up anti-Muslim prejudice.
And then there’s the alternative, growing view. That while Robinson doesn’t have a clean record, he’s a man who now, in his thirties, is a legitimate political voice. This view holds that far from being racist, Robinson, through harsh personal experience, has identified deep seated problems in Muslim communities, which are threatening to wider society. Issues such as mosques disseminating extremist views, Islamist radicalisation in prisons (don’t forget that he’s been in prison), and the operation of rape gangs, such as were exposed, infamously, after the Rotherham cover up.
My advice is to look into Robinson’s story for yourself, and listen to what he has to say in his own words. If you’re not harbouring any weighty preconceptions, you’ll find that the former description of him seems increasingly wide of the mark. Even if you still don’t like him, two things will become clear: he’s not a racist, and he’s well-informed about Islam.
And we also have the Quilliam Foundation. This is an organisation set up by campaigner and former Islamist extremist Maajid Nawaz which works to fight extremism of all kinds. Its primary focus has been on Islam, and it aims to help facilitate an Islamic reformation, aligning the religion with the standards of twenty first century secular democracy. Recently though, it launched its new Circle initiative, which aims to combat extremism on all sides, and it’s become more concerned with right wing, nationalistic movements. The foundation has employed a mix of characters in the past, some sound and some more dubious.
In contrast with Robinson’s public reputation, Nawaz portrays himself as a thoroughly respectable figure. He has his own LBC talk show, appears as a political commentator on television, wrote a book with Sam Harris, and has become, in the UK, a go-to authority on Islamic reform.
Where Robinson and Nawaz’s paths cross is when in 2013 Robinson publicly abandoned the EDL and began working with the Quilliam Foundation. This was seen as a victory for Quilliam, but Robinson eventually rejected the organisation, regarding them as unproductive. He has also raised questions about the motivations involved in the relationship, stating that he needed the financial support Quilliam could offer, while it benefited Quilliam to be seen as having de-radicalised him.
Cut to 2017, and Robinson’s popularity is surging. His book, Enemy of the State, is an Amazon bestseller, and he’s working for the libertarian conservative organisation Rebel Media. Crucially, his robust, untrained style, which cares absolutely nothing for political correctness, and explicitly rejects both the mainstream media and left wing ideology, connects with people in a way that a newspaper such as the Guardian could only dream of.
Things get interesting when, at the beginning of April, in the wake of the Westminster terror attack, he calls up his old pal Nawaz on the latter’s live LBC phone-in. While Robinson makes points about a Home Office approved extremist imam, Nawaz is concerned that Robinson should articulate the difference between Islam and Islamism, and they talk across each other. I believe that Nawaz’s distinction is significant. But at the same time, non-Muslims are under no obligation to expend energy thinking about such matters, and in most cases never will. Something anyone can grasp immediately though, is a problem such as the authorities being duped by an extremist preacher. Which is precisely what Robinson was talking about.
Nawaz doesn’t disagree with Robinson at all, but he moves the conversation over to the fact that far-right groups are on the rise. Robinson in turn doesn’t disagree with this. But if there’s a rise in the far right, then it’s precisely because critical points like the one Robinson was making aren’t being properly addressed by the political centre (which, incidentally, is where Country Squire Magazine and its writers herald from).
Then, this week, Quilliam’s senior researcher, Julia Ebner, wrote a defamatory article for the Guardian in which, without evidence, she calls Robinson a white supremacist. Here is the passage in question:
“That the far right has moved from the fringe into the mainstream demonstrates the massive support that white supremacist movements have attracted from digital natives. Their online followership often exceeds that of mainstream political parties: with over 200,000 followers, Tommy Robinson’s Twitter account has almost the same number of followers as Theresa May’s.”
When confronted on Twitter about this, Nawaz denied that the article says Robinson is a white supremacist. But it does, and if you don’t think so, read it again. Or alternatively, read this, in which well known podcaster Stephen Knight has changed a few words from the paragraph for illustrative purposes:
I wonder what Nawaz would make of that. And let’s take a look also at the line which comes directly after the offending paragraph of the article:
“Neo-Nazis outperform Isis in nearly every metric, a 2016 report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found.”
It immediately references neo-Nazis, as if they’re connected to Robinson. While not as explicit as in the first passage, the implication is clear, and the effect of further smearing Robinson is reinforced.
This looks like a cut and dried case. It really shouldn’t matter whether you sympathise with or loathe Robinson, the article is an effort to discredit him. And not just through nods, winks and insinuation, but with an outright lie: that Robinson is a white supremacist.
Working for Rebel Media, Robinson has a new approach to dealing with such libels. In journalistic fashion, camera crew in tow, he doorsteps the writer. Just recently he did so at the newsroom of Wales Online.
And that’s where it gets a bit messy. When he did the same at Quilliam, he was refused entry, but managed to sneak into their office. The confrontation became heated, Quilliam’s staff appeared to take some of the media crew’s equipment, and eventually the police arrived, escorting Robinson and his crew out of the building.
Soon afterwards, Nawaz tweeted out news of the confrontation in what can only be described as a sensationalist manner:
Bear in mind Robinson took action because he’d been defamed as a white supremacist, the kind of false accusation he has to deal with constantly. And he’s then immediately labelled by Nawaz as an ‘extremist’, who ‘raided’ and ‘intimidated’. It’s hardly difficult to see the pattern in which Quilliam is depicting Robinson.
Watch the video and it doesn’t look much like an intimidating raid, particularly considering there are members of Quilliam who know Robinson personally.
I write all this as someone who has admired Quilliam and the work that Maajid Nawaz has done since his Hizb ut Tahrir days. It’s not intended to bash them. But it’s impossible to see Ebner’s Guardian article as anything other than an attempt at defamation, and it’s troubling to see Nawaz defending it.
I can’t help thinking that the Ebner article – and the Quilliam Foundation’s public statement over the affair – will turn out to be an own goal. The people who think Robinson is a racist will still think so. And the people who have done a little research and know he isn’t will still know he isn’t. But it’s now apparent that Quilliam isn’t averse to acting in an underhand manner. And if there’s one tactic which the general public is absolutely sick of right now, it’s the throwing around of baseless accusations of bigotry, racism and the like. After his run-ins with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nawaz should know about this more than most.
Sam White is a writer for Country Squire Magazine and has written for The Spectator & Metropolis. Other Sam White articles can be found by using the search box below (just type in Sam White) and also by looking here.