A week is a long time in counterjihadism: A balance sheet of Stephen Lennon’s break with the EDL

Lennon Nawaz and CarrollA week ago when Stephen Lennon announced, at a press conference organised by the Quilliam think tank, that he and Kevin Carroll had resigned from the leadership of the English Defence League, his game plan seemed obvious.

It looked as though Lennon intended to use Quilliam to provide a cover of legitimacy for his entirely spurious break from far-right extremism, and then set up a more mainstream Islamophobic organisation which, by distancing itself from the racist thugs and neo-Nazis who infest the EDL, would enjoy greater credibility within the international “counterjihad” movement. Presumably, having served their purpose, Quilliam would then be ditched by Lennon in favour of building links with the Islamophobia industry in the US, which is after all where the big money is to be found.

At first, all seemed to be going to plan. The Quilliam press conference last Tuesday worked even better than Lennon could possibly have hoped, resulting in saturation coverage from TV channels and national newspapers and launching Lennon into a series of softball media interviews in which he faced no serious challenge over his four-year record at the head of a mob of violent anti-Muslim psychopaths.

Lennon’s main links to the US Islamophobia industry, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, had been primed in advance about his decision to leave the EDL. They immediately issued statements (here and here) enthusiastically endorsing Lennon’s move and declaring that they looked forward to working with him in the future. The former EDL leaders’ refusal to condemn their US associates was taken by Spencer as confirmation that there was “no indication that Robinson or Carroll have given up on their resolve to resist jihad terror and Islamic supremacism”. As I wrote at the time, it appeared that Quilliam had succeeded only in smoothing the way for Lennon’s transition into the leadership of a new and more profitable “counterjihadist” enterprise.

Since then, however, the wheels have come off Lennon’s rebranding project in quite spectacular fashion. First of all, a lot of people just didn’t buy the fraudulent story of Lennon’s break from his extremist past. Responses ranged from polite scepticism to open derision. Even Hope Not Hate – who have enjoyed a friendly relationship with Quilliam on the basis of a common antagonism towards political Islam, and initially reacted with “cautious optimism” to the announcement of the EDL leaders’ defection, going so far as to “celebrate Quilliam’s efforts” – soon had second thoughts. By Wednesday afternoon Nick Lowles was declaring that “Lennon and Carroll’s political shift is looking more like a political stunt”.

Quilliam’s case that they had engineered a real break from extremism by the EDL leadership wasn’t exactly strengthened by a petulant article posted by Ghaffar Hussain at Left Foot Forward, which denounced Quilliam’s critics as “keyboard warriors” and “trendy wine bar types”. Providing an insight into the thorough investigation to which Quilliam had subjected the EDL leaders’ claims that they had renounced their violent and hate-filled past, Hussain wrote: “I first met Tommy yesterday morning and spent most of the day having brief conversations with him…. I believed Tommy when he told me that he is not a racist and does not hate ordinary Muslims.”

Worse still for Lennon, it turned out that Hope Not Hate were not alone in having second thoughts about his new turn. By Thursday, Pamela Geller was describing his alliance with Quilliam as “problematic in the extreme” and expressing concern that the organisation would be able to “deceive Tommy Robinson” – who although “full of courage” was “not well-versed in Islamic teaching” – into thinking that “Islam is a Religion of Peace and the jihadis are just a tiny minority of ‘extremists'”. Geller lectured Lennon: “It was good to reject anti-Semitism, racism, fascism, etc. It is not good to capitulate to forces of jihad and Islamic supremacism.”

Yes, seriously, that’s how Geller characterises Quilliam – the “forces of jihad and Islamic supremacism”! In reality, of course, Quilliam have themselves played a far from negligible role in stoking up fear and hatred of the Muslim community. As Salma Yaqoob points out, Quilliam

“… deliberately blur any differences between those Muslims who (alongside millions of their fellow citizens) peacefully criticise aspects of Western foreign policy and those supportive of Al Qaida style politics. In their own dodgy dossier of dangerous ‘Islamist sympathisers’ (code for people who give succour to terrorism) Quilliam lump together mainstream Muslim organisations and individuals, including myself, with the most extreme and marginal. In hysterical McCarthyite fashion they have also smeared ex-MI5 boss Charles Farr’s staff as being ‘pro-Islamist’.”

All of which you might have thought would meet with Geller’s approval. True, Quilliam don’t agree with her portrayal of Islam as an intrinsically violent faith that provides a justification for terrorism, but the practical consequences of their relentless and unbalanced campaign against “Islamism” aren’t that different – the end result in both cases is the demonisation of the Muslim community and its representative organisations.

However, rather than theological differences over the nature of Islam, the crucial issue here for a rabid right-wing Zionist like Geller (and indeed for Melanie Phillips before her) is that Quilliam have in the past balked at supporting Israeli state terrorism against the Palestinian people – or, as Geller puts it, “came out in favor of the ‘Palestinian’ jihad against Israel and the ending of Israeli defensive operations”. That’s enough to damn Quilliam forever in Geller’s eyes.

By Friday, Geller had decided – with Spencer’s backing – that it was impossible to maintain relations with Lennon and they had to be severed completely. When Lennon had told her about his planned break with the EDL, Geller complained bitterly, she had anticipated the formation of a new counterjihad group – perhaps an English section of Stop Islamization of Nations – not a lash-up with Quilliam. “It has become painfully obvious that the enemies of freedom have broken Tommy Robinson …”, a furious Geller wrote. “It is clear what is happening. Now he is the poster boy for the stealth jihad.”

Now, it is true that Geller and Spencer have demonstratively broken with Lennon in the past, only to mend fences with him shortly afterwards. But by using language like that about her former protégé, Geller has surely destroyed any immediate prospect of resuming their previous close collaboration. Cast aside by his wealthy friends across the Atlantic, Lennon is therefore in a very difficult position. Under these circumstances, US funding for some new “counterjihad” project is unlikely to be forthcoming.

No doubt in an attempt to keep him on board, Quilliam have been dangling the prospect of arranging finance themselves for Lennon’s next initiative. Maajid Nawaz told the Guardian that he would “introduce Robinson to his own contacts in government and the Home Office in an attempt to procure government funding”. So an organisation that has seen its own state funding drastically reduced over recent years is going to persuade the Home Office to fork out money for new group headed by a man who has been convicted of assault, football hooliganism and passport fraud, and who is due to appear in court soon facing further criminal charges. Good luck with that one.

So where does Lennon go from here? I suppose it’s just possible that he might bite the bullet and make some genuine self-criticism regarding his role in the EDL, with a public repudiation of his past actions. This would allow him to carve out a new career for himself as a repentant former extremist. So far, however, there is no sign of such a development – as Rosie Kinchen has noted in her excellent Sunday Times profile of Lennon, he still “spouts the same old bile: a boring blend of ignorance, conjecture and plain old racism”. Lennon may stick around Quilliam for a while, at least to maintain a pretence of respectability until his forthcoming court cases are over, but it’s difficult to see any long-term role for him in the organisation.

So, to summarise, as things stand at present Lennon’s future looks bleak. For that, all of us who have opposed this poisonous little bigot over the past four years will be extremely grateful.