Have the U.K.'s Leading Nationalists Really Repented?

It's hard to believe that the founders of a U.K. nationalist group infamous for its anti-Muslim street brawls are really defecting to the forces of 'anti-extremism' when their close ally is Pamela Geller.

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It was a sensational news story. Two leaders of a far-right nationalist anti-Muslim protest faction marked by antagonistic, often violent protests on the streets dramatically leave the group they founded, their exit facilitated by an anti-extremism organization set up by…former Islamists.

English Defence League co-founders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll will now receive lessons about Islam and learn gentler lobbying tactics from the Quilliam Foundation.

The problem is, no-one is buying this as a victory for counter-extremism.

The EDL were always a curious bunch, set up in 2009 to mount public protests against Islam and filling the gap between the British National Party – seen as too soft, too political – and the National Front – too neo-Nazi.

They have pretensions of grandeur; their logo is a pseudo-heraldic shield complete with burning red cross and the motto: “in hoc signo vinces” - under this sign you will conquer.

Their mission statement is to draw support “from people of all races, all faiths, all political persuasions, and all lifestyle choices” in the fight against radical Islam. But they have never been more than a street-fighting group whose events were more akin to football hooliganism without the need to buy a ticket.

They lack the racist pedigree of, say, the Klu Klux Klan, but they certainly see themselves as allied to some on the U.S. right. They are fans of anti-Islam activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, as well as Quran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones, all of whom have been invited at one time or another to attend EDL rallies; none have been able to, due to being banned from entering the U.K.

U.S. “surfing rabbi” and former Kach member Nachum Shifren did speak at one of their rallies (where he called Muslims “dogs”), thus giving force to what the EDL consider their inclusive USP. To this end a “Jewish Division” was created in 2010 (to the united disgust of the organized community) and there are also supposed to be, believe it or not, LGBT and Sikh divisions.

All nonsense, of course, and highly disingenuous – just like Robinson’s claim this week that he was leaving because his organization had been infiltrated and over-run by extremists.

The Quilliam Foundation, a government-funded counter-extremism thinktank which managed the process of their EDL exit, described it as “a huge success for community relations in the United Kingdom.”

Co-founded by former activists for Hizb ut-Tahrir (an extremist and anti-semitic Sunni movement which rejects democracy and wants to declare a global Caliphate) Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, Quilliam haven’t had an easy time of it, struggling for legitimacy within the Muslim community and accused of downplaying the role of U.K. and U.S. foreign policy in radicalizing young Muslims.

Quilliam is doubtless looking for fresh funding but its jubilation over Robinson’s apparent conversion is misplaced. Robinson has nothing to add to the debate over what fuels Islamic radicalism.

The EDL co-founders’ sudden volte face did not include any repudiation of their former views, and no details were forthcoming about the pair’s transformative road to see the light. “I apologize if what I have said and represented has not resonated individually with Muslims,” was the most Robinson could manage in a Quilliam press conference.

Robinson and Carroll are due to stand trial on 16 October for allegedly attempting to defy a ban on marching to the spot where soldier Lee Rigby was killed by suspected Islamic extremists in a brutal attack in June.

They like to claim that they’re only saying and doing what others are too scared to. Which might be right in some cases, but to make any political capital, those views have to be expressed with a certain finesse and the careful use of euphemism.

What Quilliam has done won’t boost the standing of the thinktank itself, and risks granting Robinson the status of a “reformed extremist” to lend his future projects unwarranted gravitas. The publicity won’t hurt him, either.

There has already been talk of Robinson setting up a new, perhaps transatlantic group, although all we have so far learnt about it is that it won’t be “street-based” – that is to say, he will renounce violence. Robinson has already said he has no plans to stop his association with Geller, who for her part says she looks forward to working with him and Carroll. The now denuded EDL for its part has vowed to go on – oddly, using the Egyptian revolution as an example of how true movements for change don’t need formal leaders.

But maybe it won’t. Its founders were what gave it some coherency. With no formal membership process, it’s more of a social media network centered on organizing beer-fuelled ad hoc demonstrations.

If the EDL does disappear, they will be missed for a reason more British than bigotry: humor. Because there’s an alternative EDL, The English Disco League, formed last year as a “Google bombing campaign” to replace Carroll and Robinson’s outfit as the top result in web searches for the same initials and which now raises money for charities that support diversity. They also come complete with logo and motto: Unus Mundus, Una Gens, Una Disco - One World, One Race, One Disco.

Daniella Peled is Editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Far-right nationalist anti-Muslim protest in UK.

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