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.