What does Tommy Robinson, reformed soccer hooligan and English nationalist, have in common with Daniel Pipes, unreformed policy wonk and president of the pro-Israel Middle East Forum?
Islam, that’s what. Not that Robinson and Pipes are joining the Sons of the Prophet. Rather, they’re joining forces against Islamist influence in their societies, and against two related, and perhaps more serious problems: the stifling of debate about Islamism and immigration, and how unaccountable social media companies censor the opinions they dislike, even if those opinions have broken no law.
On Wednesday, Pipes and the MEF hosted British speakers for a panel in Washington, DC on ‘de-platforming’. The location was kept secret, for security reasons. That a platform on Islamism and de-platforming requires such measures proves that debate on Islam is stifled by the threat of physical intimidation. This alone is cause for concern about the status of free speech. And so is the story of Tommy Robinson, who was unable to obtain a visa for the MEF event.
When the event was announced, 55 British Members of Parliament, not all of them from Labour, wrote to Mike Pompeo, requesting that Robinson be denied a visa. Robinson, the MPs said, promoted a ‘violent and extremist agenda’, and would use funds from his US speeches, alleged to total $1.4 million, to ‘organize further disruptive demonstrations in communities across the UK’. These communities might well be the ones that the British government is so afraid of annoying that last week it refused to offer asylum to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian convicted of blasphemy against Islam in 2010.
‘I’ve never been arrested for anything to do with hate speech,’ Robinson told me yesterday morning by phone. ‘These 50 MPs, why don’t they write letters concerning the radical Islamic preachers that are freely entering our country every other week? They think they can dictate to everyone. They think they can tell Americans who they can and can’t have into their country.’
Robinson is amiable and intelligent. That doesn’t change my reservations about his politics. I grew up near where he comes from, and played soccer and music with people like him. He represents the best and worst aspects of the working-class Englishman — the type, lest we forget, who beat the Kaiser and Hitler.
Robinson is an ex-member of the racist British National Party, and the founder of the English Defence League, a motley of soccer fans who do not discriminate enough between Muslims, Islam and Islamism. He is also a defender of free speech who faces death threats for his role in publicizing the biggest child abuse scandal in British history, in which gangs of mostly Muslim men were raping and trafficking in underage girls.
Robinson is a man of convictions, including convictions for violent affray. That — and not the MPs letter against him — might be why he’d been denied entry to the US. He might be uncouth, but I do not believe he is a racist. His opinions about immigration and Islamism are those of many British people. Silencing him will not change that. In fact, his kind of politics is what you get when government and media collude to silence the lawfully expressed opinions of ordinary people.
‘Come to any working-class British community and ask them their views on Donald Trump,’ Robinson says. ‘The media’s perception is that he’s hated. And it’s the same view they put out on myself. Everywhere I go, I get a hero’s reception. But if you listen to the media or these MPs, they have me as a hate figure that people don’t like.’
‘I’m not a danger to America. I’m not a danger to the American public. All I want to do is come and give a warning. It’s about Luton town, where I was born. Luton town in 1982 had one mosque. Now it has 35. It was the launchpad for the 7/7 bomb plot, the fertilizer bomb plot, the Stockholm bomber. Just last year, four Muslims here were convicted for planning to behead an American soldier at an airbase in the UK. It was named by the CIA as an epicenter of terrorist activity for Europe. Where I’m born and bred, there was a celebration of September 11 in our town. At our local shops, there were posters put up for ‘The Magnificent 19’.
‘I’ve watched what happens. I’ve watched the inability of the police and the council to act. I’ve also watched the way the far left and the local council align themselves with these radical groups because they foresee the future of our town. The future of our town, unfortunately, is completely Islamic. White English people like myself are a minority in the town. That’s all I’ve ever known. I’m treated second-rate. We do not matter. I’ve come to give a warning to America about just how quickly that can happen.’
White English people make up 45 percent of Luton’s population, so it’s true that they are in the minority. But they’ve only been in the minority since 2011. For Robinson to say it’s ‘all he’s ever known’ isn’t accurate. And of the Muslim men tried for plotting to behead an American soldier, only two were convicted. Robinson’s casual way with the details might support the criticism that he is a demagogue. But he insists that he is not racist.
‘I’m from the most multicultural and diverse town in Britain, and I embrace it and I love it. If you line up 30 of my best friends, they’re St Lucian, they’re Polish, they’re Italian, they’re Bulgarian. My mother was an Irish immigrant… There’s no racial tension in my town, it’s down to religion. And that’s not down to any fault of our own. The Hindu community, the Sikh community, the Jewish community, all our religious communities have integrated and assimilated into British culture. The one that doesn’t and will not — and it’s not our fault that it won’t — is Islam.’
Robinson paints with a broad brush, but a lot of people in Britain think that his picture is broadly true. When you look at the racism and Holocaust denial that YouTube allows below the line, it seems bizarre and unfair that Robinson should be stifled for reporting the obvious, even if he sometimes blurs the details. But this is what has happened to him.
‘I’ve been removed from Twitter. I’ve had my PayPal removed. Next will be my Facebook. What choice do we have then to have our voices heard? We’ll be back on the street. There’ll be no other option. We started on the street because we had no platform. We then created our own platforms so we could move off of the street and talk to people and have debates. And now they’re taking all of them away. That’s a dangerous path to put people on, where there’s no avenue to discuss or debate fears and concerns and problems in your community.’
‘If I’m wrong, then it’ll be proven in the debate. People can listen and make their own minds up. But they don’t want the public to have that choice. They’re not just taking away my free speech, they’re taking away the public’s ability to hear and to listen. They don’t think they’re educated enough to make their own decisions.’
The ‘they’ that Robinson talks about is the alliance of government and media. You don’t have to be paranoid to believe in its existence. Look at how most American outlets rallied to one party or the other in the 2016 elections — and at the spectacle this week of Mark Zuckerberg and Emmanuel Macron agreeing to ‘partner’ on policing political expression online.
‘This is politicians trying to pressure private companies to remove certain individuals. This is in itself fascism. At some point, all of those companies give up, like PayPal last week. My ability to hire a workforce and bring people videos about things the media aren’t telling people has been taken away overnight.’
I wonder if the British government would prefer if Robinson could be vanished, like the Man in the Iron Mask.
‘A hundred percent,’ he says. ‘They would, and I know they will. That’s why I’m even more scared as the days go on. They’ve tried imprisonment. They’ve tried fear and intimidation. They’ve tried targeting my pregnant wife and my family. They’ve targeted myself. And I’m still here. At the minute, my voice is louder than it’s ever been. To them, it strikes fear into them, because all of them know. All of the establishment know they’re working against the interests of the British people. They all know.’
‘Look around our country. Everyone knows what’s happening. 22,000 British Muslims are on the terror watch list. They know the path this country is going down, and all of us know it’s not the right one. They have created this reality, and their fear of it is why they’re trying to silence and shut everyone up. Unfortunately for them, we won’t be shut up. I’ll continue whatever the costs.’
The test of our commitment to free speech come when the speech isn’t finessed or euphemistic, and when it expresses things we’d rather not think about. Like I said, there’s a lot to dislike about the company Tommy Robinson keeps. But it is disgraceful that social media companies, while they monetize neo-Nazism, porn and Russian trolling, should gang up on Tommy Robinson. Most of his ideas sound to me like classical liberalism’s defense of the democratic nation state. If he’d been to the right schools, he’d probably be a Conservative MP by now.
It’s disgraceful that Robinson should live in fear, and expect to be murdered for expressing his opinions. It’s disgraceful that MPs should intervene in his application for a US visa, and obstruct his lawful pursuit of work in the US. And it’s absurd to claim that engaging with Robinson somehow makes us all complicit with racism.
‘I always say, I will talk and debate anyone anywhere, because I have an unbeatable ally, and that’s the truth,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t prepare for any interview, I don’t need to prepare. The people who are coming against me are coming with falsehoods. When a debate happens, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a debate, and I don’t think I will, because everything I’m saying is true. I just hope there’s Americans out there who do love freedom, who love free speech, and who do want me in their country.’
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.