Who needs Tommy Robinson and the EDL, when Islamophobia has gone mainstream?

It doesn't matter whether Tommy Robinson has reformed (or rebranded) himself. Islamophobia hit the mainstream long ago, with help from large sections of the press.

It was the most stunning volte-face since Libya’s foreign minister Mousa Kousa defected to the west in 2011. Or perhaps since Sol Campbell left Spurs for Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001. On 8 October, Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Andrew Mc- Master, aka Paul Harris), the co-founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL), quit the far-right group and joined hands with the Quilliam Foundation, a “counterextremism” think tank. Robinson, lest we forget, has described Islam as a “disease” and the Prophet Muhammad as a “paedophile”, and threatened to subject British Muslim communities to “the full force of the EDL”.

Can a fascist renounce fascism? Of course. Can he do it overnight? I’m not so sure. On 6 October, two days before his “defection” to Quilliam, Robinson tweeted that “sharia legalises paedophilia”; on 4 October, he claimed that Islam was “fuelling” a “global war/Holocaust on Christians”. On 2 October, he tried to intimidate a critic of the EDL by turning up unannounced at what Robinson (wrongly) believed was his home.

Forgive me my cynicism. At a press conference on the day he quit the EDL, the 30-year-old sunbed shop owner from Luton did not apologise for or acknowledge his previous anti-Muslim remarks; nor did he renounce, denounce or disown the EDL. So far, he seems only to have rebranded, rather than reformed, himself. Robinson, however, is an irrelevance. So, for that matter, is the EDL. The hate-filled antics of these balaclava-clad thugs have distracted us from a much bigger issue: Islamophobia went mainstream long ago, with the shameless complicity of sections of the press.

Look at the numbers. A Cardiff University study of 974 newspaper articles published about British Muslims between 2000 and 2008 found more than a quarter of them portrayed Islam as “dangerous, backward or irrational”; references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.

Look at the little-noticed conclusion of Lord Justice Leveson’s November 2012 report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press: “The identification of Muslims . . . as the targets of press hostility . . . was supported by the evidence seen by the inquiry.”

Look, above all else, at the way in which headlines, stories and columns reflect much of what Robinson says – without being tainted by the fascist whiff of the EDL.

“There is a two-tier system, where Muslims are treated more favourably than non-Muslims,” Robinson claimed in a speech in Leicester in February 2012. Consider, however, the lurid headline on the front of the Daily Express, in February 2007: “Muslims tell us how to run our schools”. Or the Daily Star’s splash in October 2008: “BBC puts Muslims before YOU”.

Spot the difference?

On 5 October, a jubilant Robinson tweeted: “2 more muslim paedos caught in Bristol [sic].” “The common denominator is that they’re all Muslim,” he declared at an EDL rally in July, referring to the criminals convicted in various child sex grooming scandals. Yet a Times column by David Aaronovitch on grooming, in April 2012, was headlined: “Let’s be honest. There is a clear link with Islam.” A year earlier, in January 2011, the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips attacked “Muslim sexual predators” who targeted non-Muslim girls, she alleged, out of “religious animosity”.

Spot the difference?

Robinson has called for an outright ban on “Muslim immigration” (a demand he repeated on Twitter as recently as 29 September), while EDL supporters have been caught on camera chanting: “Burn the mosque!”

This is the language of fascism, plain and simple. Yet my old sparring partner Douglas Murray, a regular contributor to the Spectator and the Mail, has said, “All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop,” and called for mosques accused of spreading “hate” to be “pulled down”.

Spot the difference?

The stock response to such criticisms from conservatives and liberals alike is to cry “9/11” or “7/7” – as if the terror threat justifies Muslim-baiting polemics or fear-mongering headlines. How, then, do we explain their obsession with halal (rather than, say, kosher) meat? Or the endless debates over the face veil, worn by less than 0.05 per cent of the population?

To claim that hostility towards Islam or Muslims is a product of 9/11 or 7/7 is disingenuous. The pernicious “clash of civilisations” thesis appeared on the scene in the early 1990s.

The denialism about rampant Islamophobia, on the left and the right, has to stop. Today, otherwise respectable commentators channel Robinson and his allies and pretend their focus is on “Islamism”, not Islam, in the same way so many anti-Semites pretend only to have a problem with “Zionism”, not Judaism.

No faith or community should be protected from criticism and even ridicule. In the past year, I have challenged anti-Semitism and homophobia inside Muslim communities in Britain on these very pages. But we’ve reached a point where you can now say things about Muslims that you simply cannot say about any other minority group.

The far right, meanwhile, has cleverly eschewed anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist rhetoric. Instead, the BNP “bang[s] on about Islam”, Nick Griffin once told his supporters, “because, to the ordinary public, it’s the thing they can understand. It’s the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with.”

Griffin, thankfully, has been unable to ride the Islamophobic tiger into the mainstream. But will the savvier ex-EDL chief succeed where the buffoonish BNP boss failed?

On the morning of his resignation, Tommy Robinson retweeted messages of support. One was from a “militant atheist”, Matthew Barlow: “Good luck with whatever you do next, with or without the EDL we rely on people like you to say what most people are scared too [sic].”

With or without the EDL, indeed.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK where this article is crossposted

Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) with his EDL co-founded Kevin Carroll outside Westminster Magistrate's Court. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.