Prominent English anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson’s recent imprisonment has caused an uproar in Britain, with thousands protesting his arrest.
On May 25th 2018, Tommy Robinson’s arrest was dramatically aired via live streaming from his phone. He had been broadcasting outside a rape trial which had reporting restrictions in place. A little known fact is that Robinson could be seen earlier checking with court officials as to what he could legally do, as he was already on a suspended sentence for a similar offence. Clearly, he hadn’t been careful enough. Within hours of his arrest, he was convicted, sentenced and imprisoned for 13 months for contempt of court.
The judge then issued a ban on the British press reporting on any of it, leaving the British public uncertain if a tweet or post about Tommy’s imprisonment could land them in prison too. The gag order was soon lifted, quite possibly due to the international outrage garnered by it. It is uncertain whether his situation would have drawn attention otherwise, as much of the British press, in their reporting, regularly labeled him as far-right. But are his actions really deserving of that label? Going by the outpouring of public support, it does not seem so.
Understanding why Robinson’s actions provoked the outrage they did, both from the state apparatus as well as his fan following, requires a soul searching into the current mental state in Britain, where many Britons have lost faith in the establishment. Indeed so many seem to have have turned to Robinson, who many view as a working-class hero, that his social media rants about the dangers of Islam have amassed a cult-like following.
Growing up in Luton, Tommy Robinson had become concerned that his town was becoming increasingly Islamized. In his autobiography, Enemy of the State, he chronicles a number of events that seem to have influenced his aversion, including being mugged by gangs he claims to be Muslim, and his cousin being gang-raped. Further events such as posters appearing around town glorifying the 9/11 hijackers as the ‘magnificent 19’ with some Luton Muslims openly declaring their admiration for them., seem to have further cemented his turn towards his current politics.
He felt that the state was doing little to address what he saw as a growing menace. Looking for a solution, but being politically naïve, he signed up to the British National Party (BNP). He soon left when he discovered his black friends couldn’t join and started his own movement, the English Defence League (EDL). Largely a street-protest group, the group, however, acquired a reputation for being ‘far-right’ in sympathies, although how much of this was due to reportage that described them as ‘far-right’ is debated. According to Tommy that only served to attract far-right elements to join, and eventually, Tommy would leave the movement he had formed.
Whatever the EDL’s shortcomings were however, in hindsight, it appeared to the public some of their fears were justified. There were reports that one of the terrorists responsible for the 7/7 2005 London bombings, where 52 people were killed, had been radicalised in a Luton mosque.
Much later, it would also emerge that in the so-called “Rotherham/Rochdale Scandals” thousands of young British girls had been groomed, gang-raped and kept as virtual sex slaves by gangs of predominantly Muslim men. As reports and the waterfall of investigations in Newcastle, Telford etc, are now beginning to show, this has been going on for decades in epidemic proportions all over Britain. Whilst there are multiple reasons for the systemic failure that allowed this to happen, it has also become trite knowledge that police, councils, social workers and much of the media turned a blind eye, scared of being called ‘racist’.
In such a time of turmoil, after the British state had proven utterly incompetent at being able to protect its citizens, and the state no longer been able to keep a lid on these atrocities, public trust is at an all time low. When the British press do report on them, they label the gangs as ‘Asian’, and then denounce people, such as Tommy, as racists for calling the gangs Islamic. Yet, Maajid Nawaz of think tank Quilliam, and himself a Muslim of Pakistani descent, has bravely acknowledged that according to Quilliam’s own research that around 84% of the grooming gangs are of Pakistani origin and Muslim.
When Rotherham MP Sarah Champion was reported to have said that “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”, she was soon forced to resign from her role in the Shadow Cabinet. Hardly a far-right politician as she is a member of the left-wing Labour Party, she spoke about how she “nearly lost her mind” by “the level of depravity and horror” […] after victims turned to her for help – unable to trust the police or local council.” In an extraordinary statement, Champion said that she thought “there could be up to a million victims of exploitation nationwide.”
As a final nail in the coffin, the placing of reporting restrictions on the trials has only served to further cement the public belief that the state cannot be trusted.
Is it to be wondered at then, that the working class is furious when it is primarily their children that are being raped and tortured. Some girls were even murdered. The ugly truth, for supporters of Robinson is that those who deride Robinson or his causes are classist; those who, living in their safe havens, are content to look down their noses and decry the white working class victims as racists.
In one case where a grooming gang was holding a fourteen-year-old girl captive, her father took it upon himself to rescue her after the police had refused to help him. At the scene, reportedly, the distraught father yelled out something racist and, in a twist of irony, the police turned up to arrest both him and his daughter, for disorderly behaviour. None of the rapists were charged despite one being found in a bedroom with the half-naked underaged girl, one more in a long line of incidents that appear to have cemented the belief among a section of the British public that the State is not to be trusted.
When people like Robinson and his followers march in the streets against terrorism and grooming gangs they are denounced as far-right. But as Tommy wrote in his autobiography, “The lawmakers and politicians never see that – that behind these people on the streets can be awful, agonising stories, all because they don’t do their jobs. Don’t listen to us.”
It is undoubtedly true, that Robinson has had a chequered past, the married father of three has had numerous run-ins with the law, including doing time for assault and mortgage fraud. He admits he’s been no angel, but claims some of these sentences were a stitch up in response to his activism. He’s also received numerous death threats and beatings.
As to whether Tommy Robinson is a racist, he certainly has some controversial friends, such as Austrian Martin Sellner who heads an anti-immigration movement. But describing Robinson as far right sits uneasily with a fuller picture of his other activities. Tommy Robinson has also argued in favour of immigration for the families of Gurkhas, Nepalese who gave war service to Britain. He has sat down for a friendly chat with black nationalist Sa Ra Garvey, mixed race anti-Islam activist Jonaya, and Shazia Hobbs, a Scottish ex-Muslim of Pakistani descent.
He has some sympathy among the Sikh community, including a follower called Raj, nicknamed ‘Tommy Robinsingh’. It would seem that ‘Raj’ doesn’t find Tommy’s particular brand of activism problematic, perhaps because he had seen his own community targeted by the grooming gangs in addition to the white British girls who were victimised. Robinson also appears to have some supporters among the LGBT community, including his own media manager Caolan Robertson. This, in itself should raise doubts about his far right sympathies, given his support from a community who have traditionally chosen to align with left-leaning activists.Yet the press love to paint Tommy as a far-right racist. While there’s no denying Tommy has some right-wing support, it is also clear that that isn’t his only support base, a distinction that the press has glossed over.
Indeed the press tried to implicate Tommy in Darren Osborne’s case. Osborne was on trial for murder, having plowed into a group of Muslim worshippers, killing one man. The press stated that prior to the murder Tommy had sent Osborne direct messages. This claim is demonstrably false, as the prosecutor had himself clarified that Osborne had merely subscribed to Tommy’s email list.
Despite the fact that evidence was given that Osborne had become “obsessed with Muslims” after watching a BBC drama about the Rochdale rapes, the implication was there, by both the press and the prosecutor, that Osborne had been radicalised by Tommy’s posts. There is very little reason for why they chose to focus on Robinson’s influence on Osborne, as opposed to the BBC’s. This kind of heavy handed and unfair treatment by the state has further cemented in his followers a belief that Tommy has never gotten fair treatment from the British Government or from its institutions, least of all the press.
Similar speculation in the future could prove dangerous for someone like Tommy Robinson as The Sentencing Council for England and Wales is currently considering proposals to make ‘influential figures’ culpable if their content inflamed others to commit a crime.
Certainly, there is no denying Tommy’s abhorrence of Islam. Indeed he was indulging in a passionate rant about Islamic grooming gangs and rapists during his last report.
However, at one point he burst out laughing when some Muslim lads passed by and jokingly yelled, “It’s not us, it’s not us, Tommy!” Tommy then addressed the camera, “I know some Muslim lads who would be as outraged…Again, I’m not portraying it as all Muslims. There’s a problem, the majority of grooming offences are from Muslims, … the justification given for it can be found in the Quran. All of these things play a role I think in these sort of cases, so I talk about it… I meet hostile Muslims but I also meet a lot of decent Muslims who have a sound chat with me who say how frustrated they are with what’s happening but most of them you find don’t follow the doctrine or scripture of Islam…So my problem again, just to clear the record, my problem is with Islam, with the teachings, it’s not with individual people.”
Less than an hour later the police swooped and carted Tommy Robinson off to jail. Meanwhile, thousands of British working class girls, victims of grooming gangs, still await their rapists to be brought to justice.
While there are clear issues with some brands and forms of his activism, the treatment meted out to him by the state and press leaves much to be desired. With all the inconsistencies, it is difficult to easily label him as a far right thug, and as long as the media or the state does not understand that, Tommy Robinson will continue to have thousands turn up at a march to protest his arrest.
Dana Forrest is a freelance writer and writes on issues of cultural and political significance