On the same day that Tommy Robinson announced he was leaving the English Defence League (EDL), saying he was unable to control "extremist elements" within its ranks, the former leader of the anti-Islamic group has appeared at a Quilliam Foundation event amid tight security to speak about his decision to quit the far-right movement.
Speaking on a panel that included Quilliam's Maajid Nawaz and Usama Hasan, and the EDL deputy leader Kevin Carroll, Robinson said: "I thought the EDL was part of the solution but now it is part of the problem," adding: "I don’t hate Muslims... I don’t want to lead a revolution against Muslims."
Robinson spoke of his "chaotic life" and the death threats and time in prison that had given him "time to reflect". He said: "I thought what do we really want? Each time we did a demonstration it was a cry for help from Middle England. I asked myself a lot of questions. I have three young children and I want what is best for them, I want to confront the problem but marching through the street saying 'who the fuck is Allah' meant that we were offending moderates."
Robinson holds his head in his hands during a press conference at the Montague Hotel
Robinson said he intends to work with Muslims and non-Muslims to defeat extremism. "I looked at the Manchester demo, with white pride flags, and I thought ‘that does not represent me'. I don’t want to be the public face for them. When someone lifts up their top that has a tattoo with a mosque that says boom! I take the flack for that."
Robinson said he had made up his mind to leave the EDL, but then Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered and he threw himself back into it. On the adverse reaction his seeming "defection" has caused from members of the EDL, Robinson said "a lot of people have called me a sell out and a coward but there is no more powerful statement than the four of us sitting here today, against extremism." He added: "I ask my supporters to have faith in our new direction."
Most English defence league supporters are great people ,the problem 4 me is I'm the public face and when I'm not there splinters r welcomed
— Tommy Robinson EDL (@EDLTrobinson) October 8, 2013
Robinson said he remains opposed to Muslim extremism, adding that "Muslims in this country have to listen to what we are saying".
Before Robinson spoke, Quilliam Chairman and Co-Founder Maajid Nawaz explained the position of the foundation: "Tommy wants a chance to prove he is not happy with the neo-Nazi association. I would not be a good human being if I did not allow him to demonstrate that."
Journalists queued around the block for invitation-only talk, with at least one being ejected for not having a legitimate press card. Due to the secrecy surrounding the event, no protests were held outside, despite the venomous backlash directed at Robinson on Twitter following his announcement.
Has Robinson changed his spots?
Earlier, Robinson explained his decision to leave the EDL in a statement: "I have been considering this move for a long time because I recognise that, though street demonstrations have brought us to this point, they are no longer productive. I acknowledge the dangers of far-right extremism and the ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas."
In a statement, Quilliam said it had been working with Robinson to achieve his "transition" from extremist to democrat, which the foundation said represents “a huge success for community relations in the United Kingdom”.
The statement added: "We have previously identified the symbiotic relationship between far-right extremism and Islamism and think that this event can dismantle the underpinnings of one phenomenon while removing the need for the other phenomenon. We hope to help Tommy invest his energy and commitment in countering extremism of all kinds, supporting the efforts to bring along his former followers and encouraging his critique of Islamism as well as his concern with far-right extremism."
Quilliam Chairman and Co-Founder Maajid Nawaz said: "As well as being a very positive change for the United Kingdom, this is a very proud moment for Quilliam. This represents not a change but a continuation for us, as challenging extremism of all kinds forms the basis of our work. We have been able to show that Britain stands together against extremism regardless of political views and hope to continue supporting Tommy and Kevin in their journey to counter Islamism and neo-Nazi extremism."