In June last year, Prime Minister Theresa May veered from “strong and stable” to “Enough is Enough”. Britain was reeling from its third murderous terror attack of 2017. Yet again an outrageous act of violence: first, targeting tourists in Westminster, then children in Manchester and now people enjoying their Saturday night in the London Bridge area of the capital.
As a nation, we often pride ourselves on having a stiff upper lip. We pride ourselves on being liberal, fair and democratic and, in doing so, we acknowledge the dissenter; giving either enough leash to exercise their rights, or in the most extreme of cases, enough rope to hang themselves.
Theresa May warned that Britain had exercised “far too much tolerance of extremism” and threatened to step up the fight against Islamic extremism. While the Prime Minister was making promises, the founder of the English Defence League (EDL) was issuing stark warnings.
Stephen Lennon (a convicted mortgage fraudster known more frequently by his self-proclaimed monicker of Tommy Robinson) had the ear of an alternative nation. Lennon’s audience stretched worldwide, broadcasting to well over a million people across Facebook, Twitter and other media – those who felt the Britain had tolerated too much from Islamic extremism. Or simply too much Islam.
After the Manchester arena bombing by a jihadi extremist on 22 May last year, Lennon had vented to camera outside houses close to a mosque in the city. He did so via his social media and Rebel Media accounts (part of the The Rebel far-right alternative media network broadcasting from Canada). He filmed himself describing those living inside these homes as “enemy combatants” who wanted to kill and maim his viewers. “They [Muslims] want to destroy our way of life,” he shouted angrily down the camera.
After the London Bridge attack in June, while the Prime Minster was declaring “enough is enough”, Lennon was going further. Citing Northern Ireland as an example, he predicted in a video posted to social media that “militias will be set up” causing the government problems “beyond their wildest dreams”.
“Inaction will only facilitate the creation of a disgruntled and angry population,” he ranted, “… who will end up cleaning out this Islamic problem.”
Less than two weeks later, Darren Osborne, a violent and troubled man with a history of drug and alcohol abuse – similar to so many of those who had joined the EDL – drove a hired van from his home in Wales to north London with the intent of murderously avenging Islamic extremism.
Osborne initially wanted to target Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, because they were seen as “soft” on terrorism, often portrayed on social media-as even “enablers” of Islamic extremism.
Unable to find Corbyn and Khan (presumably in the far-right mind they were walking hand-in-hand on a pro-Palestinian march in the capital that weekend), Osborne ended what had in fact been a three week journey in extreme radicalisation by driving his hired van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers in Finsbury Park, north London.
“I did my bit, now kill me,” he told the stunned and injured crowds he had just murderously attacked.
Osborne wanted to die, according to the imam who saved his life that night. He wanted to be martyred like a terrorist. He had “done his bit”.
The idea that Corbyn and Khan are “soft” on terrorism shows the political immaturity of Osborne on complex issues, but they are not just symptoms of Osborne’s naivety. These are actually common themes and strands of thought and opinion of literally millions of people who now seek opinion, guidance and comfort in the words of bigots.
In the new era of clickbait and monetised ‘journalism’, the mediums by which people access opinion (and facts) are blurred. Actual facts are not just absent, they are unimportant and ill-considered. Our mainstream media throws open its apparatus to illiberal extremists. Their narratives, often extreme, conspiratorial or violent, have no reference, no referees or barometer. We have entered an age where the loudest and most extreme voices win hands down.
Stephen Lennon, the self-style journalist, is often afforded the same rights as real journalists. He has pushed his anti-intellectual agenda into the realms of academia. He even has a best selling book denigrating the Qu’ran.
He and a host of others on the extreme or far-right bleed over into mainstream opinion to such a point that it becomes harder and harder to whittle down what is accurate, what is fair, what is wildly inaccurate and what, in many cases, is simply lies.
Some argue (rightfully) that we now have an issue where authorities and those who control social media are still failing to grasp the extent and the extreme danger that far-right narratives about Muslims and Islam are having on society.
I would argue further that this issue is not an issue exclusive to the extreme right. To give them sole credit for this and Osborne’s murderous three-week radicalisation would be as dangerous as it is disingenuous.
Osborne’s journey began with the viewing of a BBC drama about a grooming gang in the north west of England. The drama was praised for its approach towards complex issues including race, class and victims of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, by the time it came out, the issue of grooming gangs had already become a drum to bang for the far right. The object of the drama was not to drive hatred towards Muslims. But it drove Osborne (and no doubt some others) onto social media in search of answers, in search of an understanding of a complex issue.
Type “Muslim”, type “grooming” into social media channels and see how long it takes to end up in the arms of extremists, into the orbit of haters whose words seem to have no limitations or borders.
Take Katie Hopkins, for so long the darling of the right and now the couch companion of people like Stephen Lennon at The Rebel. Take the Britain First website and multi-million strong Facebook page.
The articles these sites they run constantly push, that cause so much outrage among liberals with their hateful agenda about Muslims and asylum seekers, are not written by Stephen Lennon, Jayda Fransen or PaulGolding. More often that not, they’re written by tabloid newspapers. The night Osborne was convicted of murder and attempted murder, Lennon was invited onto BBC’s flagship current affairs show, Newsnight.
Mainstream society has laid down with dogs and we have now got up with fleas.
Matthew Collins is head of research for HOPE not hate