On Tuesday, the resignation of two of the most senior English Defence League leaders, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) and Kevin Carroll, was remarkable because of what did not happen. There was no repudiation of the EDL’s beliefs, or goals. There was no criticism of EDL foot soldiers, who were held up by Lennon as “the best people in my life”. There was no sense of remorse for the impact and financial cost that EDL rallies have had on (already devastated) working-class communities up and down the country. There was no rejection of leading Islamophobes in Britain and elsewhere, whom the EDL have worked closely with. But most striking was that there was no shift whatsoever in Lennon’s own views. Asked by an extremely passive Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight whether he had changed his beliefs, Lennon dodged the question, saying, “I want people to listen to my views. I see this as a step forward”.
Instead, what did happen was a remarkable display of disingenuous nonsense, backed up by the counter-extremism thinktank the Quilliam foundation, itself founded by ex-extremists who have seen the light and – to be blunt – should know better. In just 24 hours we were told we were witnessing a huge success for community relations, but then learned that, actually, Lennon plans to establish a new anti-Islamist movement, which we assume will adhere to his slapdash generalisations of sharia law and misinterpretations of the Qur’an. We were told how this was about keeping extremists at bay, but then assured by Lennon that EDL activists are “decent people” and that this was the next phase in his group’s evolution. We were told this was about fighting extremism in Britain, then given a list of reasons by Lennon that were entirely self-interested: reflections on his life in prison; concern about his family’s safety; and an acknowledgment he had become powerless to control his own creation, which is now infested by rightwing extremists (the most interesting statement of the day, given the Metropolitan police’s refusal to view the EDL as an extreme rightwing group).
All of these are valid reasons, of course. Across Europe, we know that what is often the most effective at disengaging people from far-right groups is not challenging their ideological worldview but helping them to achieve something more mundane: a new relationship; moving to a new town; or a steady job. Practitioners from Germany to the Netherlands tell me how these practical changes play a stronger role than mythical “counter-narratives” in pushing disillusioned young men out of the arms of extremists. Such a transformation is not what we saw yesterday.
A useful distinction is between disengagement, where somebody leaves an extremist group while possibly still holding the beliefs that got them involved, and deradicalisation, a difficult term that implies at least some fundamental change in how people view and make sense of the world around them. Disengaging somebody from extremist activity is easier than the more complex process of overhauling one’s values and outlook. This helps explain why so many ex-terrorists and ex-extremists never manage the transition. Instead, they hurl themselves to the other side of the spectrum, becoming just as fanatically obsessed with the promotion of democracy, fighting their former extremist brethren – or selling their latest book. And, as we saw yesterday, they often fail to comprehend personal responsibility. It’s not Lennon who is at fault, it’s the neo-Nazis who took over his group. It’s not the radical Islamist, it’s the foreign policy grievance, or the far-right extremists who attacked his mosque. And so on.
That both Lennon and Quilliam were so aggressive in advertising to the media the apparent conversion and celebrating their publicity on Twitter should speak volumes. The dignified and difficult work of counter-extremism was not really there, replaced by an uncomfortable descent into self-promotion with little evidence of substantive change. A cynic could point to the fact that both the EDL and Quilliam have had their own difficulties in recent months and that this is all a ruse to make Lennon’s warped view of Islam seem mainstream. After all, in the late 1990s one fairly prominent activist made a similar stand, complaining that demonstrations and violence were not the way forward. His name was Nick Griffin.
Serious answers to questions about how this came about, what change of views have occurred (if any) and why Lennon spent most of yesterday regurgitating his already well-known prejudices were absent. Was yesterday interesting? Perhaps, if only because it underscored what a strange place the counter-extremism industry can be. Was it a watershed moment, signifying the withdrawal of two men from a damaging movement and a poisonous set of beliefs? Not in my view.