It was the most stunning volte-face since Libya's foreign minister Mousa Kousa defected to the west in 2011. Or perhaps since Sol Campbell left Spurs for Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001. On 8 October, Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Andrew Mc- Master, aka Paul Harris), the co-founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL), quit the far-right group and joined hands with the Quilliam Foundation, a 'counter-extremism' think tank.
Robinson, lest we forget, has described Islam as a "disease" and the Prophet Muhammad as a "paedophile", and threatened to subject British Muslim communities to "the full force of the EDL".
Can a fascist renounce fascism? Of course. Can he do it overnight? I'm not so sure. On 6 October, two days before his 'defection' to Quilliam, Robinson tweeted that "sharia legalises paedophilia"; on 4 October, he claimed that Islam was "fuelling" a "global war/Holocaust on Christians". On 2 October, he tried to intimidate a critic of the EDL by turning up unannounced at what Robinson (wrongly) believed was his home.
Forgive me my cynicism. At a press conference on the day he quit the EDL, the 30-year-old sunbed shop owner from Luton did not apologise for or acknowledge his previous anti-Muslim remarks; nor did he renounce, denounce or disown the EDL. So far, he seems only to have rebranded, rather than reformed, himself. Robinson, however, is an irrelevance. So, for that matter, is the EDL. The hate-filled antics of these balaclava-clad thugs have distracted us from a much bigger issue: Islamophobia went mainstream long ago, with the shameless complicity of sections of the press.
Look at the numbers. A Cardiff University study of 974 newspaper articles published about British Muslims between 2000 and 2008 found more than a quarter of them portrayed Islam as "dangerous, backward or irrational"; references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.
Look at the little-noticed conclusion of Lord Justice Leveson's November 2012 report into the "culture, practices and ethics" of the press: "The identification of Muslims... as the targets of press hostility... was supported by the evidence seen by the inquiry."
Look, above all else, at the way in which headlines, stories and columns reflect much of what Robinson says - without being tainted by the fascist whiff of the EDL.
"There is a two-tier system, where Muslims are treated more favourably than non-Muslims," Robinson claimed in a speech in Leicester in February 2012. Consider, however, the lurid headline on the front of the Daily Express, in February 2007: "Muslims tell us how to run our schools". Or the Daily Star's splash in October 2008: "BBC puts Muslims before YOU".
Spot the difference?
On 5 October, a jubilant Robinson tweeted: "2 more muslim paedos caught in Bristol [sic]." "The common denominator is that they're all Muslim," he declared at an EDL rally in July, referring to the criminals convicted in various child sex grooming scandals. Yet a Times column by David Aaronovitch on grooming, in April 2012, was headlined: "Let's be honest. There is a clear link with Islam." A year earlier, in January 2011, the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips attacked "Muslim sexual predators" who targeted non-Muslim girls, she alleged, out of "religious animosity".
Spot the difference?
Robinson has called for an outright ban on "Muslim immigration" (a demand he repeated on Twitter as recently as 29 September), while EDL supporters have been caught on camera chanting: "Burn the mosque!"
This is the language of fascism, plain and simple. Yet my old sparring partner Douglas Murray, a regular contributor to the Spectator and the Mail, has said, "All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop," and called for mosques accused of spreading "hate" to be "pulled down".
Spot the difference?
The stock response to such criticisms from conservatives and liberals alike is to cry "9/11" or "7/7" - as if the terror threat justifies Muslim-baiting polemics or fear-mongering headlines. How, then, do we explain their obsession with halal (rather than, say, kosher) meat? Or the endless debates over the face veil, worn by less than 0.05% of the population?
To claim that hostility towards Islam or Muslims is a product of 9/11 or 7/7 is disingenuous. The pernicious 'clash of civilisations' thesis appeared on the scene in the early 1990s.
The denialism about rampant Islamophobia, on the left and the right, has to stop. Today, otherwise respectable commentators channel Robinson and his allies and pretend their focus is on 'Islamism', not Islam, in the same way so many anti-Semites pretend only to have a problem with 'Zionism', not Judaism.
No faith or community should be protected from criticism and even ridicule. In the past year, I have challenged anti-Semitism and homophobia inside Muslim communities in Britain. But we've reached a point where you can now say things about Muslims that you simply cannot say about any other minority group.
The far right, meanwhile, has cleverly eschewed anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist rhetoric. Instead, the BNP "bang[s] on about Islam", Nick Griffin once told his supporters, "because, to the ordinary public, it's the thing they can understand. It's the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with."
Griffin, thankfully, has been unable to ride the Islamophobic tiger into the mainstream. But will the savvier ex-EDL chief succeed where the buffoonish BNP boss failed?
On the morning of his resignation, Tommy Robinson retweeted messages of support. One was from a "militant atheist", Matthew Barlow: "Good luck with whatever you do next, with or without the EDL we rely on people like you to say what most people are scared too [sic]."
With or without the EDL, indeed.
Mehdi's post also appears in the New Statesman:
Follow Mehdi Hasan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mehdirhasan