Tommy Robinson, the ex-leader of the EDL, is one of the most informed pundits on Islam that the mainstream press allows to speak. It should therefore be no surprise that Islamophobic thinktank Quilliam has asked him to join its ranks or that he — ever the PR man — chose to accept.
Since 2009, the group has been using the momentum that street thuggery will inevitably generate to push a re-branded version of the far right — ostensibly focused on religion, rather than race — and make it acceptable to the mainstream. The group had been waning over the last year or so, but an efficient, inelegant self-publicity campaign in the wake of the murder of Lee Rigby in May brought Robinson back to the fore, welcomed onto the Today programme and elsewhere to discuss the rise and horrors of ‘militant Islam’.
It is every journalist’s dream to destroy a fascist through a TV interview —it has never worked, but the arrogant belief that all it will take to destroy the far-right is some well-directed, Paxman-esque quips is intoxicating. Robinson has long known far more about Islam than most of his opponents, and has quoted the Quran in numerous interviews, to little resistance.
Now that he is a member of a thinktank, now that he has spoken of the “ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas,”, he is more dangerous than ever. He will be more responsive to requests for interview, and it’s more likely that he’ll be encouraged to come on the TV and the radio.
What’s needed to fix that is a proper, unpatronising engagement with his ideas. Antifascists and Radio 4 presenters alike need to educate themselves about islam, its uses and abuses. It’s all very well making the point that Robinson’s apparent concern about religion is really about race; but as long as he’s able to make people feel uncomfortable and out of their depth speaking about the former, he’s going to win every argument.