I first interviewed former English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) in September 2015.
The interview was panned by leftists and lauded by rightists. No surprises there. But the left was upset I did not interrupt Tommy at every possible juncture to throw baseless accusations at him. The difference between me and them was, I had studied Tommy in depth and had understood the English Defence League (EDL), its rise, its decline, and how Tommy had got in trouble all along the way. I didn’t need to deploy whattaboutery to get a good interview. I just needed to let him talk. No one else ever had.
Fast forward to 2017, and Tommy is again being set up as a hate figure, which does indeed present the question: “Is Tommy Robinson hateful?” The answer is undoubtedly “Yes”. But what does he hate? Misogynistic Islamic practices? Grooming? Rape? Terrorism? The idea of an Islamic caliphate?
All of the above, obviously. And as much as I balk at how liberally Tommy deploys the most jarring of rhetoric, it is very hard, after a moment of letting one’s emotions die down, to disagree with the contentions behind broad brush statements like “Islam is evil”, even if we agree those three words are scarcely the most effective way of communicating both the human rights arguments, or even the theological arguments, behind such phrases.
In conversation, I’ve mentioned to Tommy how I believe unqualified statements like this do him no good. The Islam he has seen growing up — the Islam most of us have seen growing up — is a far cry away from what the likes of the Quilliam Foundation claim is “really the case” about the Muslim faith.
All across the continent of Europe, and more recently in the United States, we have seen acts of the most heinous depravity and barbarity committed in the name of this religion. All the while, the reformist and moderating voices are shut down by hard-line Sunnis and their useful idiot, fellow travellers. Groups like the Soros-funded Hope not Hate demonise even practising Muslims for daring to oppose Shariah law.
Against the backdrop of this, Tommy Robinson is often held up as the “extremist”.
It makes perfect sense to me therefore, as someone from a working class family too, why Tommy would find such great frustration when being dismissed as a “racist” or a “bigot” or an “Islamophobe”. It is the same frustration — combined with a sneaking sense of righteous joy — I felt when a Khomeinist think tank designated me their “Islamophobe of the Year” in 2014. Opposing Islamic supremacist movements is a noble cause. Attacking violence or injustice is laudable.
But with our working class roots, our relatively basic state-sponsored educations (Tommy is one of the most educated men on Islam in the United Kingdom, off his own back), we are demonised and dismissed. This is a fact Tommy often points to when he is denigrated in public by the quinoa-munching, frappuccino-sippers SW1.
He noted this, in his tour de force interview on the BBC’s Daily Politics this week, where he squared off against Haras Rafiq from Quilliam, after Tommy and his Rebel Media cameraman entered the Quilliam offices to demand answers as to why one of their researchers, Julia Ebner, had tied him to “white supremacy”.
For a man like Tommy, the supremacist argument is a particularly galling one. He has spent his life seeking to achieve simple parity, and has done it walking alongside former Muslims, black people, brown people, whomever would listen and whomever would stand next to him knowing full well they were as likely to appear in the Guardian the next day as they were to receiving a right hook to the face as a result.
Ebner, however, is your classic spoiled establishment type, having studied at the London School of Economics, and worked her way up to Quilliam via various “consulting” and research gigs for the likes of the European Institute for Asian Studies — a European Union-backed institution. What would she, who was a volunteer “German tutor for Austrian high school students with migration background” just five years ago, know about life in Luton? Or Rotherham? Or Oldham? Or Dewsbury? I could keep going.
The answer is: nothing.
Which is why Quilliam put CEO Haras Rafiq against Tommy Robinson on television this week.
Haras knows Tommy, and as he went to great pains to stress multiple times in the debate, had hosted him for dinner at his house, previously. As if that somehow excuses his staff member’s implied allegation and smear against Tommy in a major national newspaper.
The interview is well worth watching. While Tommy tries to bring the discussion, repeatedly, back to the issue of the Guardian-based hatchet job, Haras, alongside BBC presenter Andrew Neil and author Tim Marshall all seemed more concerned over Tommy’s tactics in walking into Quilliam’s private offices and demanding answers.
I said last week when it happened this was more of an aggressive tactic than I would have used, but I can see why he did it. For people like Tommy, the only recourse in these instances is to force the issue with a view to showing up how disingenuous his political opponents are. What did they want him to do? Pen a 1400-word riposte in the Guardian? Accept a cup of tea (this was seriously a suggestion) from Haras and simply nod along and accept a half-hearted apology?
No, in 2017, ordinary people have a new mechanism by which to affect change, and Tommy appears to be at the cutting edge of it.
This isn’t to say I’m a fan of everything he’s doing, either. I don’t particularly enjoy the videos of activists outing Muslim rape gang members as they appear for their day in court. (This tactic, I think, would be far more effective if used against the police chiefs and politicians who routinely ignored the rape gang issue for so many decades).
But Andrew Neil hit it on the head during the interview with Tommy, albeit, I think, accidentally.
“This was a pretty good publicity stunt”, he said. To which Tommy’s answer should have been, without hesitation, “Yes”.
It requires an affirmative response because it underscores how the dynamics are shifting between the establishment media, be it the Guardian or the BBC, and alternative ways of combating what Tommy referred to as “fake news” about himself, that he has been subjected to for years.
This isn’t to claim Tommy is an angel of any sort. He holds his hands up, repeatedly, to making mistakes. The kind of mistakes you’ll obviously make as a young man without a Masters degree in political communication and a team of spin doctors around you. The types of mistakes you’ll make when you see injustices going on around you and instinctively revert to emotional and aggressive tactics to combat. But he admits to these things. The other side performs no such mea culpa — at least not historically — when they engage in equally damaging behaviour.
Tommy’s video of him demanding answers at Quilliam got hundreds of thousands of views across social media this week. Without that, let’s say if he just went for that cup of tea with Haras Rafiq instead, he would have never been able to get a prime time slot on the BBC to fight his corner.
And what did that yield?
Haras was forced to make the admission that Quilliam does not consider Tommy to be an extremist. He denounced the article by Julia Ebner, and put her in her place live on national television. The Quilliam chief was also forced to concede that he hadn’t signed off on the article, but that in future, he would make sure he reads everything his staff produce for national newspapers.
Tommy once told me he began as an “angry young man” who had watched as young girls in his hometown of Luton were routinely targeted for grooming by mostly Muslim men.
Now, though still (but less) angry, he is a prime example of how the media’s monopoly — which it often uses to promote falsehoods and deceptive narratives — is coming sharply to an end.