Why Conway Hall was right to ban ‘Tommy Robinson’

The English Defence League’s leader Stephen Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) was due to speak at a meeting in London’s Conway Hall next week on the subject “Islam and Islamophobia: which is a threat to Britain?” Unfortunately for “Tommy”, he has been deprived of the opportunity to promote his hate-filled views about Muslims because the Conway Hall management cancelled the booking after complaints by Unite Against FascismSearchlight and other concerned parties.

Good thing too, you will probably say. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that the group who organised the meeting are from the very Muslim community that is the target of Lennon’s hatred. The Muslim Debate Initiative, as they are known, are opponents of the EDL who hold that the Islamophobic propaganda of the far right is best countered through discussion and public debate. As they explain in a press release announcing the cancellation of the meeting:

“We at Muslim Debate Initiative believe strongly in the need for debate, as a means to discuss and express intellectual and political difference of opinion, and thereby facilitate the public to reach a educated conclusion and judgement upon any matter. MDI believe that there should be no limits to what can be sincerely debated, and no restrictions as to what intellectual or political position can be enunciated for the deliberation of the public and the pursuit of truth and clarity.”

With that stated aim, MDI have a long-established policy of inviting representatives of the far right to speak at their events. Back in December 2009, for example, they organised a meeting at Conway Hall under the title “The Islamification of Britain: reality or myth?” at which one of the advertised speakers was Leisha Brookes, the police liaison officer for the EDL. As it turned out Brookes withdrew from that debate, on the grounds that she had left the EDL and couldn’t represent it, but another invited far-right speaker, British National Party organiser Jeffrey Marshall, did appear on the platform.

Those of a sceptical turn of mind might be inclined to think that what we have here is an obscure and unrepresentative Muslim group trying to raise their own profile by staging controversial and provocative events with the intention of attracting publicity. But even if we allow MDI the benefit of the doubt and accept that their genuine purpose in holding such debates is to counter Islamophobia and resist the far right, this is certainly the wrong way to go about doing it.

Like all far-right organisations, the EDL puts a lot of effort into acquiring a veneer of political legitimacy, obfuscating over their real aims and ideology in order to present themselves as a mainstream organisation that deserves to be given a hearing. The reality they try to hide, of course, is that the EDL is a movement of racist street thugs, many of them with fascist links, whose central purpose is to attack the Muslim community. As anyone who follows the coverage on Islamophobia Watch can confirm, hardly a week goes by without EDL members appearing in court charged with offences involving racist abuse, intimidation and assault.

The task of antiracists and antifascists is to expose the EDL for what they really are and deny them the legitimacy they want. By offering a public platform to Stephen Lennon and engaging him in polite debate MDI undermines this. They play into the hands of the EDL by reinforcing its bogus claim that it is a mainstream organisation whose views are worthy of serious consideration. Through their irresponsible actions MDI can only assist the EDL in winning more adherents and this is turn will result in further attacks on the Muslim community whose interests MDI claims to defend.

Some might argue that an organisation with the EDL’s well-established reputation for racism and thuggery would find it impossible to win acceptance into the political mainstream anyway. Try telling that to the police, who have consistently demonstrated an obstinate refusal to recognise that the EDL is a violent movement of the far right. In April last year Adrian Tudway, the national co-ordinator of the domestic extremism unit at Scotland Yard, wrote in an email to a Muslim group:

“In terms of the position with EDL, the original stance stands, they are not extreme right wing as a group, indeed if you look at their published material on their web-site, they are actively moving away from the right and violence with their mission statement etc. As we discussed last time we met, I really think you need to open a direct line of dialogue with them, that might be the best way to engage them and re-direct their activity?”

This stunningly complacent attitude helps to explain why the police show such reluctance to take effective action against the EDL, either through banning its marches or prosecuting its members over the racist threats and abuse they regularly post on the internet. Only today, we linked to a report of an incident in which the EDL’s Thanet division stood outside a mosque in Margate handing out anti-Islam leaflets in what looks like a clear case of religiously aggravated harassment. Yet Kent Police, who were called to the scene by angry worshippers, refused to take any action on the grounds that “officers found no breach of the law”.

Inviting EDL leaders to public debates, as MDI does, lets the police off the hook and provides them with a justification for failing to take the EDL seriously as an extremist threat. Here, Tudway and his co-thinkers can claim, is a Muslim organisation doing precisely what we recommend – engaging the EDL in discussion and debate. This is the way forward, they will say, rather than the police being required to crack down systematically on the EDL’s racist criminality.

In addition to all this, nobody can suppose that Lennon would have turned up at Conway Hall next week on his own – he would certainly have been accompanied by a gang of his thuggish supporters. The MDI was therefore not merely giving a platform to Lennon himself but was in practice extending an open invitation to a mob of violent racists to descend on the area where the meeting was held. While MDI members could happily return to the safety of their homes at the end of the event, local people would have been faced with the prospect of EDL hooligans getting tanked up in a nearly pub and then looking for some “scum” (their collective term for Muslims and political opponents) to intimidate.

This was one reason why Camden Trades Council, which unlike MDI represents people who actually live and work in the area, raised strenuous objections to the debate with Lennon taking place. As indeed did the local MP, Frank Dobson.

In defence of their decision to offer Lennon a platform, MDI asserts that “the Muslim community overwhelmingly welcome such debates, and are eager for such open and frank discussions to occur”. In which case, perhaps MDI should try rearranging the debate with Lennon at a venue in an area with a large Muslim population – in the centre of Tower Hamlets, say – and see how favourably the Muslim community responds to the arrival of the EDL leader and his followers in their neighbourhood.