This is a really difficult piece to write. It is the culmination of a great many thoughts I have had over the last few years, but it is not a piece full of resolution. I have not come to any firm, neat conclusions I can set out in 600 words. This won’t be pithy.
I am also aware that I am writing about issues touching on race from an extremely privileged position – one which should be front and centre in my mind as I negotiate through these feelings, just as I ask men to do so when questioning issues of gender. I am a comfortable, straight, white middle class beneficiary of the current system. I have a good education. I own property. I have a great, well paying job I enjoy. No one treats me as a criminal just on the basis of the colour of my skin nor on the basis of my religion – or lack thereof. I am approaching this debate not from a detached perspective – racism is something about which I get very emotional – but from the perspective of one who is not immediately threatened by the presence of the EDL on our streets. Is this detachment a good thing? I don’t know. As a campaigner I would always argue that the voice of users or victims count more than the voices of advocates. But this does not make the voice of advocates worthless. It does not make my questions or my unease worthless.
Two things happened this week that have got me thinking. Cogitating. Wondering. Not having an immediate answer to them, I thought I might set out my confusion here to see if writing it down helps.
The first was a fairly intense debate on my Facebook Page between two Labour stalwarts on the best way to approach people who are extremely right wing. Whether it should be openly, developing a dialogue to try to create a safe space to question their views and try to win them over to ours, or whether to shun them, reject them as we reject the vile views they espouse, to try to shame them, ensuring that such views continue to be considered shameful by wider society lessening the chances of more people being attracted to such views.
Shortly after this debate ended, Tommy Robinson announced he was leaving the EDL as reportedly through the result of outreach work by the Quillaim Foundation – he had become convinced that they were too violent and extreme. He has not repudiated his views of Islamism nor rejected his former friends and colleagues in the EDL, and he is looking to continue to battle what he regards as Islamic extremism in other ways. Many are extremely sceptical others are simply scathing.
I am not sure either of these are the right response. Robinson clearly has leadership qualities. He may have dedicated these to espousing ideas I loathe, but that does not mean they don’t exist. If he can be fully brought around to an anti-racist viewpoint, he could employ these qualities to bringing a great many people with him. That feels like an opportunity worth working towards to me. Taking time to welcome Robinson’s first few, small steps – however unsteady – and create an atmosphere that encourages further steps, further repudiation might risk us looking stupid if it doesn’t work, but gives great rewards if it does. That feels like a worthwhile calculation. I may well be proved wrong. I may well end up with egg on my face, my pride dented by having taken a risk and failed. But I hope that would still mean I would take the same risk next time. But I worry that if this does go wrong, in part that will be down the the very hostility this announcement has been met with. And that hostility and failure will make it harder still for others to change their minds.
But I worry that we have lost any focus on changing minds. Does hatred of racism have to equate to hatred of racists? Because that is the tone of the anti-EDL debate online and on marches. We loathe EDL members with the same spite – if not – thankfully – the same violence – that EDL members hate the Muslim community. In this us and them battle, both sides are happy to define themselves against the other and widen the divide between groups rather than try to recruit our opponents to our way of thinking.
When the EDL March, Twitter lights up with two reactions, that of SCUM as discussed above, but also of ridiculing the lack of intelligence of those marching. Often this isn’t hard. Racism is born of ignorance. The misspelled posters and ridiculous claims about Islam are firm visceral proof of the credulity of the EDL members.
But what I have never heard asked is why EDL members are largely poorly educated and whose fault that is. Are these people failures or have they been failed? Should we look to the education system to better improve the lives of people living on the margins? Or do people’s educational failures no longer matter once their education is no longer the remit of the state?
Are they beyond redemption? Can we – as the left – believe so in ways we rail against when it comes to those who have committed and served times for crimes? I don’t believe we should. Not because I believe – in any way – that the EDL have a case either in their cause or their tactics, but precisely because I believe they don’t. So when I see people who have been drawn down a path of security in their ignorance, I want to draw them away from that path – not hurry them along it with harsh rejection.
I reject the ideas of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment completely. Anyone who tries to suggest otherwise on the strength of this piece or otherwise is very, very wrong to do so. but I do wish to see a better dialogue about the best way to defeat racism. I do want to see a questioning of our current tactics and some investigation into whether they are the most efficient way to drive racism from our lives. I don’t know how that can best be done, but perhaps – inadvertently or not – Tommy Robinson has given us an opportunity to try and find out. We should take it.