British counter-extremism think tank Quilliam today announced that the two founders of the far-right English Defense League (EDL) are leaving the controversial organization. Tommy Robinson and Kevin Caroll have quit the EDL—a right-wing protest group with a stated agenda in opposition to Islamist extremism—“because they feel they can no longer keep extremist elements [within the EDL] at bay,” according to the foundation’s press release.
Formed in 2009 and led by Robinson, the EDL is widely referred to in the media as a far-right, Islamophobic group. The think-tank Demos describes it as “the biggest populist street movement in a generation” and notes that its mode of operation “is not electoral campaigning, but volatile street demonstrations.” Its public demonstrations are often marked by drunken behavior, racist chanting and sometimes violent scuffles with anti-fascist protesters, resulting in arrests. EDL members have also been filmed giving Nazi salutes. Some politicians have argued that the organization is a bigger threat to community cohesion in the U.K. than the much-derided, far-right British National Party.
At a press conference in London on Oct. 8, 30-year-old Robinson said: “I have a passion to combat Islamist ideology and I want to lead a revolution against that ideology, but I don’t want to lead a revolution against Muslims.” He told journalists that he had reconsidered his position when serving an 18-week prison sentence for traveling on someone else’s passport. Robinson said that during the time he was away, fascists and extremists had infiltrated the EDL, and he was no longer willing to be the public face for what it had become.
In an interview with the IBTimes U.K., Robinson’s personal assistant Helen Gower said he would be forming a new group that is not street-based. Robinson took to Twitter to say that it has been: “the most difficult day of my life! I thank Edl supporters for their messages of support. For me this is a step forwards not backwards”.
Quilliam’s chair and co-founder, Maajid Nawaz, said, “We have been able to show that Britain stands together against extremism regardless of political views and hope to continue supporting Tommy and Kevin in their journey to counter Islamism and neo-Nazi extremism.”
Nawaz, like the other founders of Quilliam, is a former activist for the radical Islamist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir. He was arrested in Egypt and jailed there for his membership to that organization. Nawaz resigned from Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2007, a year after he was released from prison, and went on to set up Quilliam in 2008. The think tank says it “aims to challenge extremist narratives while advocating pluralistic, democratic alternatives that are consistent with universal human rights standards.”
Reception to the news has been mixed from both supporters and opponents of the EDL, reports the Guardian. Some have praised both Robinson and Caroll for their decision to leave, while others remain critical. Journalist Sunny Hundal tweeted: “Quilliam’s move looks like a worrying move to mainstream and legitimize Tommy Robinson, a thug who hasn’t actually changed his broad views.”
Speaking with the Guardian, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a group aimed at fostering interfaith dialogue in the U.K., said that he had met with Robinson last week. He had admitted to him he would be leaving the EDL, said Shafiq, but “at no stage did he reject his previous disgusting attacks on Islam and Muslims or apologize to the British people for the millions wasted policing their protests.”
Nawaz acknowledged during the press conference that although Robinson may still hold views he won’t agree with, he felt he had to help Robinson as he believes “everyone deserves a chance to demonstrate they want to move forward in a positive way.”