The new alliance between EDL's former leader Tommy Robinson and the Quilliam Foundation's Maajid Nawaz has certainly succeeded in grabbing media attention. In a double page spread the Evening Standard describe them as 'the odd couple' and ask 'has an ex-Islamist turned the EDL's leader?' I want to believe that Tommy Robinson has finally seen the error of his ways, I really do. But I am finding it difficult to.
When I met Robinson a month ago as part of a documentary what struck me was how demoralised he was. He was finding it difficult to mobilise on the streets (he told me it was actually quite hard to get people to "protest" by trying to whip up hate in the face of strong opposition), and was running out of money (he bizarrely admitted the EDL had a pro-Israel stance to attract funding from Zionists but complained to me that it had not materialised in the way he hoped). He faced fighting within the EDL, and whilst he enjoyed his notoriety, was becoming weary of his increasingly pariah status and the ridicule the EDL attracted. The EDL were in trouble. They had hoped to inspire a mass movement around a message of Islamophobia, with some of the trappings of 1970's National Front style street violence and intimidation. They failed, thanks to the tireless campaigning of a broad range of anti-racist activists - a particularly heart-warming component being the English Disco Lovers and their 'Don't hate, Gyrate' slogan - in addition to those who organised on the streets, ridiculed Robinson's #creepingshariah and #askTommy online messages, and gave solidarity to the Muslim community. Whether it was parents giving him the cold shoulder as he dropped his kids off to school, shop assistants refusing to serve, and even save the badger protesters turning on him, Tommy was feeling the heat. If Robinson has concluded that street thuggery was "no longer productive", it was not because of the two conversations he had with Quilliam representatives the week before the joint press conference, or indeed my conversation with him a month before (however touching a story that would be).
Those of us wanting to see the best motivations in Robinson's departure from the EDL were very quickly disabused of that hope. He refuses to take real responsibility for the hatred he has incited and the very damaging effect he has had on community cohesion. He chose instead to portray himself as merely 'misundersood' and 'misrepresented'. This from someone, who despite the pleas of Lee Rigby's family, cynically exploited his brutal and tragic killing to mobilise angry mobs against Muslims to further his own notoriety and agenda of hate. No sooner had Robinson finished the programme he was taking part in with myself, than he was off organising a march to Tower Hamlets. Not content with the provocation of making the largest mosque in the country the focus of his march, he also wanted it to assemble in the local Altab Ali Park, named in memory of a young Bangladeshi garment worker murdered by racists in 1978. Even after his announcement of leaving the EDL because he felt he could "no longer keep extremist elements at bay" he has been encouraging people on Twitter to attend the EDL rally in Bradford this weekend.
As I pointed out when I met him, if he was frustrated by the actions of some Muslim extremists who are causing fear and anger in the wider community, he has always had ready partners to talk with and work with in the Muslim community. There are a whole range of organisations and individuals who have publicly denounced those who claim to act in the name of Islam but harm others through threatening words or actions. In Birmingham alone, 300 Muslim organisations and individuals co-ordinated to ensure that the likes of Anjem Choudary were not given a platform in mosques, challenged in the streets if they made an appearance, and made clear their rejection of his trouble making and divisive rhetoric and behaviour. Whenever terrorist atrocities happen in Western countries, Muslims as citizens sharing the tube, city centres, work places etc are not immune from the physical explosions as witnessed on 9/11 and 7/7, but are also subject to the physical and psychological backlash when they are collectively blamed for it. So the idea that Muslims in Britain are indifferent to or do not care about the threat Islamic extremists pose is beyond laughable.
Robinson thinks that by partnering with the Quilliam Foundation, who also label practically everyone in the Muslim community who do not share their particular views as 'extremists', he has developed a new ingenious strategy to mainstream his cause. If the somewhat fawning response of the media is to go by, he may well be on to something. It was striking how he was allowed to continuously make references to the dangers of Islamic extremism in broad brush stokes, without challenge or definition, smearing an entire community, conjuring up an image of a sinister 'enemy within'. It's an approach that has much in common with Quilliam, who deliberately blur any differences between those Muslims who (alongside millions of their fellow citizens) peacefully criticise aspects of Western foreign policy and those supportive of Al Qaida style politics. In their own dodgy dossier of dangerous 'Islamist sympathisers' (code for people who give succour to terrorism) Quilliam lump together mainstream Muslim organisations and individuals, including myself, with the most extreme and marginal. In hysterical McCarthyite fashion they have also smeared ex-MI5 boss Charles Farr's staff as being 'pro-Islamist' (Maajid Nawaz has as recently as this week repeated this smear on Twitter). Very popular for a period in government circles, Quilliam are widely discredited within the Muslim community. No longer in receipt of generous government funding, their new found alliance with Tommy Robinson to bolster their anti-extremism credentials smacks of a desperate gamble. The biggest losers of all however in any moves to legitimise and mainsteam Robinson's odious views will be British Muslims and community relations.
While I welcome the crisis the EDL now finds itself in, and any retreat from its confrontational marches, anti-racists will face new challenges in the months ahead. With the Tories gearing up to wage a dirty, divisive general election campaign I fully expect Lynton Crosby and co to out-kip Ukip by blowing hard on their dog whistles about clamping down on immigrant communities with all the subtlety of a roving Home Office advert. And it won't just be Muslims and immigrants. They are already cranking up the attacks on the long-term unemployed and those in receipt of sickness and disability benefits. With Tommy Robinson seeking to put new clothes on his old divisive hateful messages, it's a dangerous mix.
The only antidote to this is unity and solidarity. I am glad therefore to be joining with Unite and other unions in a celebration of multicultural Britain and a demonstration against racist extremism. Unite members were themselves victims of an attack from the EDL. It's fitting the demonstration is taking place in Liverpool. This is a city which proudly boasts the oldest black community in Britain, first Chinese Community in Europe and was the site of one of the earliest Mosques in the country. The recent 50,000 strong trade union demonstration during the Tory conference suggests a mass movement against austerity is finally taking shape. If so, it is imperative that anti-racism is at the heart of it. The old trade union slogan of 'an injury to one is an injury to all' remains as relevant as ever.