We must always leave the door open for groups or people to reform. After all, if we don't accept that people can change, what is the point of arguing, of debating, of reasoning - the bedrock of liberal, democratic politics? Yesterday's extremist is sometimes today's elected representative. (Or tomorrow's: Quilliam Foundation chairman Maajid Nawaz was once an Islamist radical, and will be a parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems in 2015). When people recant - even if not quite as far as we might wish -we should make an effort to take them at their word, and to listen to them seriously. Especially extremists.
That's why we should give Tommy Robinson - who quit the EDL this week - a chance. Believe it or not, he has always been a 'moderate' within the movement, and has struggled to contain more radical fringe elements, such as the National Front and Combat 18. I've interviewed him a few times, and have always felt he was frustrated that the EDL was known only for beer fuelled chants, violent demos and racist Facebook posts. (A reputation, to be fair, it often deserved).
The EDL has no membership structure, and so it attracts all sorts of people, plenty of whom are in it because they don't like Muslims and they like kicking off on Saturday. If he wanted to fight Islamist extremism, the EDL hasn't exactly helped the cause. My suspicion is that Tommy now thinks this approach is doing more harm than good.
I'm not saying Tommy is an angel. The not-stupid counter to my cautious welcome is a legitimate one: that he wants to legitimise an Islamophobic world view, working with a think-tank to make it more palatable. Perhaps. Don't expect him to join Unite Against Fascism. I'm sure he'll continue to say some inflammatory and nasty things. But if, as he claims, he wants to start a movement to fight Islamist extremism not Islam, in a peaceful, law-abiding way rather than chucking beer bottles, that's a good thing. If, as he claims, he want to work with other Muslims to do that and can bring some of the EDL with him, then that's worth listening to. If, as he claims, he wants to apologise to Muslims for the offence he has caused by tarring too many of them with the extremist brush, then let's accept it.
Democracies are noisy, chaotic places to live, where good and bad ideas clash. It is a system to allow people who disagree vehemently to live side by side. It's health depends on all citizens feel they can present their views and argue it out fairly, otherwise disillusion and disengagement is the result.
When someone shifts position, and wrenches themselves to a slightly more democratic position, we should reach out a hand. Vigilance is adviced; as it might all prove to be an act. But until then - give him a chance to deliver on his word, to repair some of the damage the EDL has done.
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