Sometimes a cause can end in martyrdom. And sometimes that’s what it needs. For the anti-Muslim, immigrant-hating far-right, Tommy Robinson has been just that.
The white supremacists are converging. If globalisation is bringing people together as borders become porous, it is bringing the causes of the far-right across different parts of the world into a single unified front. Tommy Robinson is the martyr whose supposed unjust treatment at the hands of the British establishment is enough to inflame the far-right with a sense of righteous fury.
Robinson’s hearing for contempt of court drew a solid number of protesters rallying around him demanding his release. Before that, Katie Hopkins interviewed him where he cut across as a tearful and disconsolate figure seemingly embracing his condemnation to a Muslim-majority prison as punishment for his views. And so the far-right have their martyr. The man who defends young girls from Muslim gangs. The man who protects the honour of a culture and people abused by Muslim outsiders.
We do not need to know that he is a perversion of working-class British culture which is the most diverse out of its class groups. We do not need to know that Katie Hopkins masquerades herself as a lover of white people but withdraws her solidarity in a fit of sneering poison if they happen to be poor and struggle. Just as we know across the continent or the Atlantic, that the far-right are not reflective of the entire people. We know all of this. And yet it would be dangerous to dismiss how much they have grown, crept into political parties to decisively sway policies.
Those of us who live in Britain and America can testify to how politics has changed as a result of this. The normalisation of white nationalist language within political discourse has fuelled a sense of far-right euphoria at no longer feeling quite so marginalised, showcased in the spike in hate crime post-Brexit. Some of this should have been predicted by those who are students of history. Times of extreme material insecurity always leaves a political space for those who blame the hardship on the voiceless migrants. Free-market globalisation economically deflated many blue-collar communities and shredded them of the sense of belonging, communion and strength they had before. As rust settled over much of these areas, anger needed to go somewhere and the far-right have always been there to direct it.
How the media treats the far-right is a point of contention amongst liberals and there is no answer that works for every case. Some believe they deserve the opportunity to express their views as freedom of expression is not the preserve of a few. Others believe they hinder the safeties of people and therefore the media should refuse them any platform. The problem with allowing the far-right to express their opinions under the principle of free speech is that there isn’t an equivalence between inciting hate and fear as they do, and criticising Islam on a theological basis. Treating their opinions as just simply disagreeable ones like any other lends it a legitimacy it does not deserve. Flip to the other side where years of interviewing the Islamist preacher Anjem Chowdary gave him and his views a power over disenfranchised Muslim youth it did not deserve. Both Tommy Robinson and Chowdary used their growing media profiles to magnify their voices and views to reach ears and minds of those most vulnerable to their propaganda. Chowdary’s views included violence against gays, ex-Muslims and women. What was gained from bringing to interviews? Tommy Robinson led the English Defence League, who terrorised Muslim residents in towns whenever possible.
Sky News’ senseless decision to interview Tommy Robinson is a good example of this: all it did was consolidate his core audience and harden the sympathies of others. He continues portraying himself as a free-speech martyr, a defending of English children threatened by Muslims. He is anything but a martyr, anything but a good man. Robinson finds cases where the religions or ethnic backgrounds of the perpetrators can be politically contorted by him, weaved into his narrative that posits Muslims as a threat to British people. Like a lot of far-right figures, this is a spider who knows the webs he is spinning. Do not think of a prison sentence as the end of the racists, or even Tommy Robinson. This is a movement that has been elevated by him, but now also transcends him. He will be their martyr, more so if he went to prison and never returned. But they will have other figures so long as there is always someone willing to blame minorities and the institutions in our society, like the media, say nothing.
The pallid tone of the questioning that often accompanies giving the far-right a media platform makes you both miss Jeremy Paxman - but also question whether journalists really understand the threats they are dealing with here. Do we defend freedom of speech even to the point where it threatens the liberties and safeties of others? Has the past decade not revealed to us how ineffective the media are in acting as a disinfectant? Surely if they are going to be given a platform then those interviewing figures like Robinson, Hopkins and others must realise these are not normal political individuals who can be simply debated. They hold genuinely terrifying views that would lead to the oppression of millions, views that deserve unforgiving, remorseless interrogations.
This is not an easy and straightforward answer because driving opinions underground can lead to them mushrooming at an unchecked scale. The next time you see the views they’re in the White House or spearheading Brexit. Moreover, it simply fuels their self-depiction as being martyrs. Which is exactly what Tommy Robinson has portrayed himself as now that his fate possibly points to prison.
The question now is, how to stop people seeing Tommy Robinson as a martyr and instead as the bigoted extremist he is?