Tommy Robinson Quits the English Defence League: Damascene Conversion or a Cynical Tactic?

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This week EDL leader Tommy Robinson quit from the English Defence League and began collaborating with the counter extremist Quilliam Foundation, however, POLSIS researcher Alex Oaten argues that there is little for us to be positive about.

Yesterday’s breaking news that the well known and controversial EDL leader Tommy Robinson and his cousin and co-leader Kevin Carroll, have quit the movement following an intervention by the ‘counter extremist’ organisation the Quilliam Foundation, has left commentators and researchers stunned. As Robinson made a press statement explaining his desire to move away from street demonstrations flanked by two former Jihadists turned counter extremist experts, one could be forgiven for feeling pangs of optimism but did this represent a true Damascene conversion or simply a cynical tactic for Robinson to achieve greater respectability for his Islamophobic views?

Since the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich in May this year the EDL had claimed to have gained thousands of new supporters and Robinson had been invited onto the BBC’s flagship Sunday Politics show to be interviewed by Andrew Neil. When seen through these recent gains in publicity and support for the EDL, Robinson’s resignation seems somewhat surprising. Since 2009 Robinson has led the movement that formed in response to an abusive protest by a handful of radical Islamists against British troops parading through Luton. A recent EDL demonstration in Birmingham was attended by 1500 EDL supporters plus counter demonstrators and was the largest policing operation ever undertaken by West Midlands’ Police. The controversial message of the EDL was being made and was getting through to the public, so why would Robinson, whose slogan has always been ‘No Surrender’, choose to resign?

If we are to believe Robinson, his resignation was decided in February after having had chance to think long and hard about the EDL during his recent incarceration in Britain for entering the USA on someone else’s passport last year. Whilst he was imprisoned he claims that “fringe elements…racists, Nazis, extremists…were invited back” (Newsnight 08/10/13) into the EDL and Robinson was forced to make this oh so principled stand against the extremist insurgency into the EDL by walking out. He has thus decided to take his fight against ‘radical Islam’ and ‘Islamist ideology’ in a new direction working with the former Islamist extremists who have set up the Quilliam Foundation that opposes ‘radicalisation’ and ‘Islamist ideology’. So far, so implausible.  

Robinson’s conscience led to him renouncing the EDL as “part of the problem” and vowing to work with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For its part the Quilliam Foundation took credit for helping Robinson make his “transition” ( Robinson has now pledged to “counter Islamist Ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas”- the Damascene conversion complete he declared that he does not “hate Muslims”.   

Presumably, Tommy the democrat will still remain committed to, as he once said at an EDL demo in Leicester, “combat[ing] militant Islam, wherever it raises its ugly, paedophilic, disturbed, mediaeval fucking head” but will now do it via round table discussions at the Quilliam Foundation rather than screaming from a megaphone in a city centre near you. On Newsnight yesterday evening, he called for Mosques to be regulated, which seems like an idea that Orwell’s Big Brother State would be proud to call its own. Robinson’s new reasonable attitude to democracy will no doubt resonate well with the Quilliam Foundation whose co-director Ed Husain urged the government back in 2009 to use data collected through the ‘Prevent’ programme to effectively spy on Muslims who may or may not be ‘extremists’. Husain also argued that Muslims who “articulate extremist views” that provide the “mood music to which suicide bombers dance…should be handed over to the authorities”. Exactly what counts as an ‘extremist view’ is not articulated but as Shami Chakrabarti from the pressure group Liberty warned, it amounted to a “domestic population being spied upon by its neighbours and community groups” and would “turn neighbours on neighbours” (

So it may just be the case that Robinson’s flash exit from the EDL is not so much a conversion, but the pursuance of a new strategy in which he attempts to gain a veneer of respectability for his views, whilst being championed by the Quilliam Foundation who seem to share elements of his general distrust of British Muslims. Quilliam will no doubt see his presumed ‘conversion’ as somewhat of a pleasing coup d’etat, but ordinary Muslims living in Britain may not be as pleased. His desire for the ‘regulation’ of mosques demonstrates his fundamental views have not changed. Rather, his embracement of Quilliam represents a cynical change of tactic. Just three days ago, Robinson took to twitter to say that “Muslims created Islamophobia themselves…They don’t challenge the extremists so we will” and five days ago, he mused about the “Global war/holocaust on Christians…We all know it’s #Islam fueling [sic] it”. Now Robinson is off the streets and pursuing ‘democracy’ which he sees as a “progress forward” (Newsnight, 08/12/13), a definite tactical change which is certainly cynical but which is sadly not the Damascene conversion that he and Quilliam would like us to believe. It is not yet possible to determine who will gain the most from this new alliance, Quilliam or Robinson, but it is clear that Robinson’s views remain unchanged even though his tactics have changed.



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