October 18, 2013
It was April 2012, and it was my first face-to-face meeting with Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), the leader of the English Defence League (EDL). We were appearing on a BBC1 programme called The Big Questions. Little did I know this would be the start of an 18-month journey together that would end with Tommy leaving the EDL.
It was an odd position to find myself in. I had spent years as an outspoken advocate against Islamophobia, working to counter extremism and trying to address what I felt was an emerging civil rights crisis for Muslims in Britain. Muslim communities everywhere were under threat, attacks against mosques and individuals were at epidemic levels and rising. Yet the Islamic tradition is that you do not try to crush those who wish to oppress you, you try to educate them. You pray for them. You enlighten them. Despite the heated exchanges that day, I was able to extend to Tommy an offer: that we have dinner.
Three hours of debate followed. Tommy meanwhile seemed to enjoy ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. He liked his steak on the rare side. At the end of it we both tweeted two statements from Tommy – that I “must be reading a different Qur’an to everyone else” and “if every Muslim was like you there would be no problem”. The response was shocked and sceptical. That I had passed the Tommy Robinson test for acceptability was nothing to be pleased about. He had to meet more people. We needed to do more work.
So our journey together continued. Despite both my mother and wife questioning my sanity, I had always wanted to stand up and address an EDL meeting, and come face to face with Tommy’s supporters. A town hall-style meeting was arranged at a hotel in Luton. Because of the risks, the crowd was limited to around 50 people, and I was given a four-strong security team, including my own bodyguard, a Jehovah’s Witness called Rudi. It was a stressful experience. The anger and hostility from EDL members surfaced over things I thought long gone, with the National Front-daubed brick walls of 1970s Britain: coming over here and taking our jobs and our women, erosion of culture (they even believed they were limited from practising Christmas), multiculturalism, and immigration. It was important to listen – they are not uncommon views. Painful ones.
At the end of the meeting, I had to break my fast, as required in the month of Ramadan. I invited Tommy back to my room and he stood with me as I offered a dua supplication/prayer. We ate food from a local Indian takeaway. Tommy’s insistence on refusing halal meat on camera was a regular theme throughout our time together, despite the fact he eats it at Nandos and his favourite Turkish kebab shop. As I prayed maghrib (sunset prayers) he watched, quietly. Tommy has always been much better to talk to in a one-to-one setting. We could have a real conversation. When the camera was rolling, I felt we rarely saw the real Tommy.
Later Tommy held a conference with Maajid Nawaz, of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam, and announced he was quitting the EDL. I was cautiously optimistic. Throughout the journey my aim had been simple – to see if we could move Tommy on his views and to see if the British public would shift on theirs. My view had always been that any new future should be conditional on Tommy distancing himself from former extremist pals, and that shared ideology.
My journey with Tommy has shown one thing – that to embrace diversity in modern society we need to work out our differences. It’s often a messy and imperfect process, but it’s vital that we remain hopeful. Discourse and dialogue can work. How else can we tackle hate and prejudice?