On May 2, the Quilliam anti-extremist organisation in London was the site of an altercation between Quilliam members and Tommy Robinson, formerly of the English Defence League, and a cameraman. Tommy now works for the British branch of Ezra Levant’s right-wing Canadian news network, Rebel Media.
Tommy had gone to the offices of Quilliam to complain about an article in The Guardian newspaper by Quilliam’s researcher named Julia Ebner, about the rise in right-wing extremism in the UK, and how it and Islamist extremism feed off each other. This broad point is often well made and cogently put by Quilliam members like Maajid Nawaz, Adam Deen and Haras Rafiq who is Quilliams’ CEO. It is a convincing case for how extremism on all ideological fringes breeds a mirror image reaction on the opposite fringe.
The issue Tommy had with the article was with this specific paragraph, with the most contentious section highlighted:
“That the far right has moved from the fringe into the mainstream demonstrates the massive support that white supremacist movements have attracted from digital natives. Their online followership often exceeds that of mainstream political parties: with over 200,000 followers, Tommy Robinson’s Twitter account has almost the same number of followers as Theresa May’s.”
Tommy decided to confront the article’s author by going to see her at Quilliam’s London headquarters. As seen in the video uploaded to Rebel Media’s Youtube channel, Tommy tried to gain access to the building, was asked by Adam Deen if he had an invitation, and when he said he didn’t was asked to leave. Tommy then proceeded to interrogate Deen about whether he thought he was a white supremacist.
Once he was on his own, he re-entered the ground floor lobby, and given no-one was around, decided to go downstairs to see who he could find. Having done this, he ran into the various staff members and researchers who make up the Quilliam team, found Julia in a small conference room with other members, and proceeded to shove his microphone in their faces, while his cameraman filmed them all. A scuffle ensued when Deen tried to stop the incident by apparently grabbing Tommy’s microphone and recording equipment attempting to stop the cameraman filming. Tommy spoke to Haras Rafiq, and the police who were called then escorted Tommy and his cameraman off the premises.
Let me be plain. This was absolutely unacceptable conduct on Tommy Robinson’s part. He violated Quilliam’s security, and the organisation has now had an emergency relocation to new secure premises. He trespassed without permission, and intimidated members of their staff. This, despite all his protestations, made him look like the aggressor rather than the victim, the opposite of his aim. Also, he lost credibility in insisting he’s not an extremist when he copied tactics used by Islamist and other far-right organisations like Al-Muhajiron and Britain First. Added to this, the reaction of members of Quilliam’s staff, who understandably felt surprised and threatened was non-conducive to de-escalating the potential for physical conflict, as their snatching of the microphone and other film equipment only made the situation worse.
That said, let’s consider why Tommy was there, while in no way offering it as an excuse for his actions. Maajid Nawaz and Haras Rafiq have gone on record and repeatedly stated that they do not believe Tommy is a white supremacist, and that the article, which they had no editorial oversight over, was not intentionally worded to portray him as such. That’s all very well, but as Andrew Neill said on the BBC’s Daily Politics, the sentence structure and its chronology strongly implies that Tommy is a white supremacist. Despite Maajid Nawaz’s protestations to the contrary, there is no getting around this. Apparently English is Julia Ebner’s 3rd language, so it is perhaps understandable that her wording could be considered a little awkward in places. However, this is also little comfort as it shows the laxness of the editorial process both within Quilliam up to this point and at The Guardian.
Apparently this situation has now been rectified at Quilliam, as Haras stated on the show. Of course, as Maajid Nawaz has said, not censoring your staff is a good thing, but there is a difference between editing and censorship. Particularly where accuracy is concerned, and in cases like these with such subjects as far-right and Islamist extremism under discussion, accuracy is paramount, precisely to avoid incidents like this escalating to the point it did.
I’d also like to point out an outright error in the article. Earlier, the author says that Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch and author of many books on Islam, and Pamela Geller, are leaders of the American alt-right. This is factually incorrect. The alt-right is a very specific race based ideology, which is founded on the view that whites are a race, deserve to be recognised as much as other racial groups, are accorded the racial identity that comes with that identification, and should practice politics based on their racial interests and identity. Put simply, it is the mirror image of the identitarian Left’s race based identity politics, on the right of the political spectrum. The common feature both sides share is their basis in collectivism, with all the ills that entails.
Here we return to the central issue of precision, and the why it is vitally important to use the correct labels in a cautious manner. While Robert Spencer Spencer’s views on Islam have been described as Islamophobic, I’ve seen no evidence that he believes any of the tenets central to the alt-right’s ideology. He was banned from entering the UK in 2013 by then Home-Secretary Theresa May for this statement: “It [Islam] is a religion or a belief system that mandates warfare against unbelievers for the purpose of establishing a societal model that is absolutely incompatible with Western society … because of media and general government unwillingness to face the sources of Islamic terrorism these things remain largely unknown.” This is his most infamous statement. He criticised an idea, not the people who hold it, and certainly not based on the colour of their skin. To my knowledge, he has never done this. This does not make him alt-right.
Pamela Geller meanwhile is as fearsome – and some would say bigoted – a critic of Islam as Robert Spencer. She was also labelled Islamophobic along with Spencer in 2013, and was also banned from the UK. She has been labelled far-right by outlets like HuffPo and The Guardian. It is true that her criticisms of Islam and particularly Muslims can be said to shade into bigotry. However, to claim that Geller is a leader of the American alt-right is completely nonsensical. One of the central planks of the alt-right’s race based ideology is their distrust to outright hostility towards Jews and Israel. Pamela Geller is Jewish. She cannot be alt-right. She can never be alt-right, and never will be. He fringe views of Islam and Muslims alone do not make her alt-right.
In a case like this, talking about difficult and emotive subjects of huge societal importance, accuracy and precision are vital. So are facts. The intention was not to label Tommy Robinson a white supremacist, but this is what the article implies. Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller are not leaders of the American alt-right, but this is what the article states. Outright. As fact. This is untrue. Precision and a total adherence to facts is obviously of the utmost importance in the media at all times. It is all the more so when discussing these subjects of extremism and ideological violence and how the two are linked.
This lack of pin-point accuracy is harmful to productive dialogue and discussion that can help us as society make progress on these extremely difficult issues. The lack of precision in the aforementioned portions of this article causes confusion, fatal when clarity around these issues is essential. As Douglas Murray argues, labelling people white supremacist, alt-right or far-right when they’re not – and in our polarised world, increasingly for political gain – devalues those labels and desensitises people to them and makes them cynical when people use them against others. This is dangerous, as it greatly increases the risk of people simply shrugging their shoulders and sighing in weary distrust when someone else has those labels thrown at them. The risk here is that sometime in the future, someone may come along for whom the labels of far-right, white-supremacist or alt-right really may be absolutely appropriate.
As Mark Steyn said recently, when everyone’s Hitler, no-one’s Hitler. This blurring of the lines could have horrific and tragic consequences. The real tragedy is that mistakes like the ones above could contribute to bringing about the very thing organisations like Quilliam are trying to prevent.
If such mistakes and blurring of categories as this keep happening, we could ultimately face a very dark future indeed.