Why did Tommy Robinson move from the EDL to Pegida?

Robinson speaking at Pegida Utrecht's launch. Credit: YouTube.

This October marks two years since Tommy Robinson departed from the English Defence League (EDL). The Quilliam Foundation had called it “a huge success for community relations in the United Kingdom” and urged others, within far-right and Islamist circles to follow suit. Their staff “facilitated” both Robinson’s departure, and that of the EDL’s co-founder, Kevin Carroll. Quilliam had also offered both men education on Islam and training in lobbying.

Robinson aimed to tackle Islamist ideologies “not with violence but with better, democratic ideas”. He later told BBC Radio 5’s Nicky Campbell “I want to lead the revolution against Islamist ideology, I don’t want to lead the revolution against Muslims“.

When asked if he had regrets, he replied “I apologise if what I have said and represented has not resonated individually with Muslims”.

Beyond these pristine, mineralised and rehearsed statements, the cracks sat in plain sight.

Days before the announcement, Robinson’s Twitter feed continued to pump out anti-Islam content. Two days before Quilliam’s press conference Robinson had tweeted “Muslims created Islamophobia themselves… Go figure!!! They don’t challenge the extremists so we will!!!” Days earlier he tweeted that “Global war/holocaust on Christians… We all know it’s #Islam fueling it…

Robinson retweeted an EDL endorsement on October 7 2013. Before that, Robinson had failed to intimidate the editor of the anti-far-right website EDL News by posting photos of an unconnected individual’s house on Twitter.

In the subsequent media fallout he remained coy about whether his views had changed. He reiterated to Jeremy Paxman that mosques in the UK must curb the influence of “preachers of hate” and “an end to Islamic immigration until the problem is solved“.

Robinson continued in his refusal to denounce past statements that included opposition to the construction of new mosques “because they preach homophobia and antisemitism“.

He often positioned himself as the authentic and marginalised working-class voice. Robinson exploited social marginalisation and alienation to push negative ideas about Islam and Muslims. Yet, the most active counter-voices to the EDL came from working-class, multicultural communities. Nor did Robinson apologise for the financial strain EDL marches brought upon the very communities he claimed to represent.

Two key Islamophobic ideologues Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller disowned Robinson. Then had a change of heart after “Tommy Robinson has written to us emphasizing that he has not changed his positions”. Both individuals are still banned from entering the UK. Geller later broke off links with Robinson in December 2013.

Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer at the Quilliam Foundation, wrote on October 28 2013: “It might sound surprising, but Tommy Robinson and the senior members of the Quilliam Foundation have something in common: they decided to walk away from extremism“.

But that statement is a position Robinson has always refuted. His departure was contingent on ‘infiltration’ from extreme far-right elements and a rejection of street protests. He has never considered himself a ‘former extremist’. A position he reinforced last month when he tweeted to journalist Mehdi Hasan “I didn’t need de radicalising, I’ve been right all along“.

For Robinson, the EDL represented the best and worst of people he had met. Deep down though, even if he will not admit it, the EDL had hit a glass ceiling. Only once had the movement attracted more than 2,000 people to a single protest – that happened in Robinson’s hometown of Luton and it brought together Defence League and other far-right factions from across Europe in 2011.

In 2012, a YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of the British public considered the EDL a racist organisation. A vast majority (77 per cent) of the 1,282 sample would never join the organisation.

In response to Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich, the EDL tweeted “EDL leader Tommy Robinson on way to Woolwich now, Take to the streets peeps ENOUGH IS ENOUGH“. That call to arms created a groundswell of social media interest. And brought thousands of new Facebook likes. On a street level, around 1,000 supporters attended their Downing Street protest on May 27 2013. Two days earlier, between 1,500 and 2,000 supporters attended the EDL’s rally in Newcastle. A month later and the march in Tower Hamlets only attracted around 500 supporters. In spite of their exploitation of a national tragedy, the EDL could not replicate its rising online support on the streets. This does not, however, seek to downplay how the EDL fosters hostility and hatred online or at protests.

Academics like Elisabeth Ivarsflaten theorised that some far-right groups are unable to fight off accusations of racism because ‘their history provides no evidence to support such a contention’. The EDL failed to offer a positive legacy to attract better educated and middle-class members of society who otherwise are put off by the EDL’s history of hooliganism and violence. Anxieties towards Muslims are mainstream yet it was beyond Robinson’s reach in the EDL. A point confirmed by an admin on Robinson’s Facebook page who replied to a comment about Pegida in February “why walk with the EDL? you wont get majority of UK with you. You need to be like Germany and get middle class with you. Admin 2”.

As Robinson mused on October 2 2013: “The biggest decision I have to make is how to evolve , how to use this voice we have created so it is taken more seriously“.

Speculation grew that this evolution would come in the form of a think tank. In January 2014, Robinson started his 18 month sentence for mortgage fraud.

Before entering prison, it emerged that a Northumberland school had cancelled Tommy Robinson’s visit. He was due to visit GCSE and A-level religious education classes with Dr Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation.

A month later and it emerged that Maajid Nawaz, the Quilliam Foundation’s founding chairman, had written to a senior Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) official in October 2013, requesting government money to ween Robinson away from dependence on EDL donors. That funding did not materialise as Nawaz would later tweet to journalist Sunny Hundal “we applied for programme to support his personal change,distinct from leaving the group. If approved, may have yielded results”.

Robinson was released in June under licence but in October 2014 he was recalled to prison. He spoke at the Oxford Union a month later.

In a December 2014 interview, Robinson hinted at a possible return to the EDL. He also explained why he was voting Ukip, and warned of an impending civil war between Muslims and non-Muslims.

When asked if saw a future with the EDL last March, Robinson responded “I see EDL doing well and I am certainly open to it“.

The Dudley election scandal raised further questions about Robinson’s EDL links. Afzal Amin had allegedly plotted to win votes by stopping a fake EDL protest. Present in the meeting was Tommy Robinson and current EDL chairman Steve Eddowes.

In exchange for their support, Amin promised to be an “unshakeable” ally for the EDL in parliament if elected. The Conservative Party later suspended Amin.

One of the terms of Robinson’s early release from prison included no contact with the EDL until the end of his original sentence. If that meeting had any influence on the decision to recall Robinson to prison remains unclear. Robinson then found himself under arrest again in August.

Free from prison and it seems that Robinson’s focus is now with Pegida. But this is nothing new as Robinson endorsed the movement last January. He confirmed that an associate and former member of the EDL had flown to Germany to meet with the group. In September his Facebook page promoted a Pegida rally in London.

Earlier this month, Robinson travelled to the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands to speak at a Pegida rally. He was unapologetic about forming the EDL and told the crowd: “I am proud of forming a resistance movement in my own country to the Islamisation of my town and country”.

Robinson continued “Do I think we should go back to the street demonstrations that we had with the EDL? No. But I think the time has come to unite across Europe because we have to save our culture.”

A week later and Robinson spoke at Pegida’s anniversary rally in Dresden – where an estimated 40,000 people attended. Robinson again justified the necessity of Defence Leagues:

“Though I am no longer involved with the English Defence League I know that since almost the beginning of its existence many in Germany have supported our efforts to speak the truth about Islam.  Even last week members of the German Defence League travelled 10 hours to Aylesbury to join the shout out against Muslim rape gangs that have proliferated in our beautiful country.  I salute those determined GDL members!

Defence Leagues throughout Europe are necessary because Governments and Bureaucracies refuse to listen to the fears and concerns of the vast majority of the people.  These Governments and Bureaucracies need help in getting their priorities right!”

Robinson had shared a platform with a man who joked about placing Muslims in concentration camps.

His social media feeds continue to endorse the UK branch of the Pegida movement. A movement not plagued with the legacy of street thuggery.

Other tweets continue to push Islamophobic conspiracies. Or mythologise Muslims as rapists and paedophiles. On Facebook he posted “Real refugees would be happy to be SAFE in any European country. These Muslims are taking the piss making demands & rioting over it”.

Amid unproductive university bans Robinson also found time to speak at Harrow School on October 13.

Quitting the EDL helped Tommy Robinson find new and greater platforms to spread his unrepentant views. Some individuals are sincere in their efforts to change their views; but from the start Robinson has not.