Free speech firebrand Tommy Robinson's contentious views on Islam spreading beyond U.K.
Activist's contempt of court case adjourned in London
The online comments disparaging Muslims as "scum" didn't appear on a shady message board or a private social media group. Instead, they were out in the open with thousands of others, elicited by a single video uploaded to YouTube and starring a self-styled free speech activist who got his start in a suburb of London.
To his critics, though, Tommy Robinson behaves like a bigoted agitator. In the video made outside a rape trial in Oxford, England, he's seen antagonizing the accused and their families. "Twenty-nine people [including] two women are involved in this case," Robinson said in the video. "Thirty per cent of them are called Mohamed." The video has been seen nearly two million times since it was posted in April 2017.
"I had no idea Muslims in the U.K. were that barbaric," one comment read.
In the replies, another user added "everywhere Islam goes, it causes trouble."
"Why are you not killing them?" another anonymous poster asked.
The post and the comments encapsulate the uproar Robinson is known to cause and the visceral reaction he evokes from supporters. It also shows what observers see as Robinson and his allies' gross generalization of Muslims.
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"He's tapped into a broader movement," said Joe Mulhall, a researcher with the London-based anti-racism campaign Hope Not Hate. Robinson, 35, appeals to "a group of very angry people" upset about terrorism and highly publicized child rape cases in Britain, Mulhall said.
"He's taking that legitimate anger and he's changing into something that's going to legitimize violence against the whole Muslim community and that's extremely dangerous."
Robinson's actions have repeatedly landed him in court — under his real name, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. On Thursday, he appeared before a judge in London to answer to one count of contempt of court. His case was adjourned until a later date.
"People are fully aware this is a political trial and it's a political persecution," he told reporters outside England's Central Criminal Court.
Robinson was greeted by a crowd of several hundred supporters who chanted his name and waved Union Jacks and the English St. George's Cross flag. About 30 counter-protesters held up signs that read "oppose Tommy Robinson, don't let the racists divide us."
Police kept the two groups separated while nearby pubs planned to remain closed in case clashes broke out.
Robinson's contempt charge stems from a video shot outside a courthouse in Leeds in May and streamed live on Facebook. In it, Robinson was heard discussing an ongoing rape trial and seen confronting the accused.
A judge had banned reporting during the rape trial — a common practice in British courts to avoid prejudicing the jury. Robinson accepted his actions were in contempt of court and, within five hours of the incident, was sentenced to 13 months.
But his supporters saw it as an attempt to curb Robinson's free speech. Donald Trump Jr., the U.S. president's son, sympathetically tweeted "don't let America follow in those footsteps."
Reason #1776 for the original <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/brexit?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#brexit</a>. Don’t let America follow in those footsteps. <a href="https://t.co/6QLejT61i4">https://t.co/6QLejT61i4</a>—@DonaldJTrumpJr
On a radio show in London, the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, called Robinson "a solid guy" and suggested he should be released from prison.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 supporters marched through London on July 14, chanting "Tommy, Tommy" and demanding he be freed. Videos of smaller demonstrations in support of him, from Toronto to Sydney, Australia, were posted online.
Mulhall disputes the claim the contempt charge was a way to silence Robinson. "This is a far right, anti-Muslim activist with a history of violence and criminality," he said, adding Robinson "was sent to prison for breaking the law." Robinson had previously been convicted of assault and fraud.
In August, the U.K.'s top judge ordered a retrial, calling the initial, swift ruling a "fundamentally flawed process." Robinson was released on bail.
From the fringes of Brexit
The rise in Robinson's profile has coincided with Britain's all-consuming debate over its departure from the European Union. Pro-Brexit campaigners promised the country would have greater control over immigration. And Robinson's base of support often overlaps with fringe elements in the Leave camp.
The populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), in particular, sought to portray Brexit as a way to block refugees from entering the country. And its new leader, Gerard Batten, feels Robinson should be welcomed into the party, especially now that UKIP has achieved its main goal of a successful Brexit vote.
Robinson is "somebody who has chosen to defend the weak and the helpness," Batten told the July 14 "Free Tommy" rally in London, likening him to Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.
On a British talk show, UKIP's former leader, Nigel Farage, called Batten's proposal "a catastrophic mistake." Pundits say allowing Robinson into the party would signal a move toward deeper fringe politics for UKIP and allow the ruling Conservatives to further dominate the Euroskeptic vote.
Indeed, mainstream British conservatives recoil at Robinson's rhetoric. London's Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper recently labelled him an "extremist and a thug."
'Islamophobic, right-wing extremist group'
Robinson first became widely known under that pseudonym after founding the English Defence League (EDL) in his hometown of Luton, near London, in 2009.
The group held chaotic marches throughout England, speaking out against what it saw as creeping Sharia law and radical Islam.
But a 2016 research paper based on 50 hours of interactions with members — and published in the international journal Political Studies — found the EDL to be an "Islamophobic, right-wing extremist group."
The study, carried out by British university researchers John Meadowcroft and Elizabeth A. Morrow, found most EDL members were white working-class men. Their motivation to join arose not only from a fear of Muslim dominance in Britain, the study said, but also the EDL's offers of access to violence, increased self-worth and group solidarity.
The research reflects what former member Ivan Humble experienced.
"There was nobody listening to me and I found a voice in the English Defence League," he said. Humble, 47, still sports a tattoo with the letters "EDL" on his right arm despite leaving the group in recent years.
Robinson himself left the group in 2013, saying its form of protest was "no longer productive," and urged others to do the same.
"I acknowledge the dangers of far-right extremism and the ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas," he said in a press release at the time.
Robinson has said he objects to Islam, not its 1.8 billion adherents worldwide. But an uninitiated audience would be forgiven to believe he dislikes Muslims in general.
"I'd personally send every adult male Muslim that has come into the EU over the past 12 months back tomorrow if I could," he posted on Twitter in 2016 before he was banned from the site.
His persona attracted the attention of Canadian commentator Ezra Levant, who described Robinson's views as "clear and philosophical" in a 2016 video.
Levant offered Robinson an overseas platform for his opinions and videos: the Canadian alternative political commentary network, Rebel Media, which has stoked controversy with its coverage of issues such as immigration and climate change.
On The Rebel's YouTube page, Robinson's videos regularly racked up hundreds of thousands of views. In one such clip, Robinson sits down with an imam and tells him "we don't have to stop extremist Islam, we don't have to stop radical Muslims, we have to stop Islam in the U.K."
Other international support comes from the U.S.-based Middle East Forum. The think tank says it provided tens of thousands of dollars — "about the mid-five figures" — to support Robinson's court battle, as well as street demonstrations for his release.
"It's not about the oxygen it's giving to [Robinson's] comments, it's about his right to say it," Gregg Roman, the organization's chief operations officer, told CBC News in an interview in Washington, D.C.
"It's important for an American organization to stand up for an individual talking about the threat of Islamism in his community," he said, "because what's going on there could also — and is also — occurring here in the United States."
There's been much speculation about what Robinson will do with his newfound worldwide support if he doesn't return to prison. Bannon is reportedly considering Robinson for a role in his new European populist foundation.
Humble, the former EDL member, worries about increased divisions in society stoked by the likes of Robinson. He likens Britain to a volcano "just simmering, waiting for the eruption."
That eruption, he says, could be triggered from something simple like "Tommy getting jailed again."