by Scott McLaughlan

Content warning: mentions Islamophobia, racism, paedophilia, sexual abuse, fascism

The sentencing in May this year of Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (stage name ‘Tommy Robinson’) to 13 months for contempt of court has caused quite a reaction from his fellows on the far right. On Saturday 9th June, an estimated 15,000 people turned out for a mass rally in London in support of Yaxley-Lennon, Trump and ‘free speech’. The sinister focal point of the rally was to link rape and child sexual exploitation with migration and Islam.

It is always a danger with a figure like ‘Tommy Robinson’, as Akala memorably put it in an exchange on BBC Three, that “fringe bigots” become the focus of our attention, rather than the central issue that we have a political system that is structured around scapegoating minorities. We shall return to this point. First though, it’s worth considering the growing popularity of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in a bit more detail.

There has clearly been a fair bit of confusion around the details of what Yaxley-Lennon actually did. On Nigel Farage’s LBC radio slot, Steve Bannon led the rallying call – “I don’t know if he’s an Islamophobe, he’s a solid guy” – claiming he was landed in the slammer on a niche “technicality”, and going on to argue that “It’s essentially a restrictive law that limits free speech. He’s got to be released from prison.”

First of all, to say that Yaxley-Lennon is an Islamophobe is an understatement. Consider his 2016 tweet: “I’d personally send every adult male Muslim that has come into the EU over the past 12 months back tomorrow if I could. Fake refugees.” He founded a violent anti-Islamic street movement, the English Defence League (EDL). It’s really not much of a stretch to consider him an extremist Islamophobe.

Secondly, the proposition that ‘Robinson’ is a “solid guy”, genuinely concerned with child sexual abuse, is questionable. He has been quick to rush to the defence of his comrade-in-arms Richard Price, convicted of making indecent images of children in 2010. Price is not the only convicted paedophile in the ranks of the British far right.

Regardless, fellow bigots, from far right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, to Ezra Levant, founder of far right Canadian platform The Rebel Media, called for solidarity. Katy Hopkins got in on it. Fox News rallied to the cause. Breitbart UK editor Raheem Kassam called for pan-European far-right unity. Rather amusingly, puffy-faced nutcase Alex Jones claimed that ‘Tommy Robinson’ had been transferred to a Muslim prison and sentenced to death!

he didn’t get jailed on “a technicality” as Bannon put it – he knowingly broke the law

This is what happened: Yaxley-Lennon was arrested for breaching reporting restrictions placed by a judge on an ongoing court case. Importantly, he admitted doing this, agreeing that he was in contempt of court. By filming the defendants and accusing them of being “Muslim paedophile rapists” – in the potential presence of jurors on the case – he a) risked influencing the jury and inhibiting from them carrying out their function, and b) risked allowing the defendants the right to invite the judge to stop the trial, discharge the jury, and possibly avoid justice altogether.

While it is quite rare to be sent to prison for such a stunt, this was not the first time that he had pulled it. He was already serving a suspended sentence for filming at another rape trial. The judge said if he did it again he would be jailed. So, to clear things up, he didn’t get jailed on “a technicality” as Bannon put it – neither was he sentenced to death – he knowingly broke the law. That being said, he deserves a fair trial, but so do the victims in the court cases he interfered with, as Nazir Afzal rightly points out.

Let’s return to Akala’s point. According to Tory apparatchik Matthew d’Ancona, the contemporary surge in far right support for Yaxley-Lennon is driven by “a new network of far-right connectivity”, personified by Steve Bannon and the tech-savvy ‘alt-right’. Writing in The Guardian, d’Ancona confidently predicts that the collective aim of these ‘networks’ is to undermine our ‘traditional’ institutions on the streets and online.

There is of course a grain of truth in this. But what does it miss? What d’Ancona fails to capture is the role of the mainstream media and his own party in legitimising far right views. As Owen Jones has pointed out, the shambolic interview of Raheem Kassam on the BBC Today programme is a case in point. Avowed sympathy for banning Muslim migration, equation of Muslim mayors with fascists and numerous hateful tweets went unchallenged. Anti-Muslim far right views were normalised.

‘Tommy Robinson’ is the vile symptom of a political system that is very sick indeed

The Tory Party itself is a hotbed of Islamophobia. According to the former party chair Baroness Warsi, anti-Muslim abuse is a widespread problem at all levels of the party. The Tories have shamelessly mobilised Islamophobic rhetoric on numerous occasions, perhaps most prominently in the 2016 London Mayoral elections, when Sadiq Khan was repeatedly labelled an “extremist”. Just this week, Boris Johnson played his part, likening veiled Muslim women to bank robbers.

Of course, anti-Muslim rhetoric accelerated with New Labour’s enthusiastic participation in the US-led War on Terror. That war gave birth to powerful domestic counterterrorism structures, from the controversial anti-radicalisation strategy ‘Prevent’, to the unprecedented expansion of police and surveillance powers. As Arun Kundnani has shown, in the UK the so-called War on Terror has targeted thousands of innocent Muslims, fanned moral panic around the potential “radicalisation” of British Muslims and constructed the image of an ‘enemy within’ in the public psyche.

‘Tommy Robinson’ must be exposed and beaten as the fraud that he is, but, as Akala put it so nicely, this should not be at the expense of highlighting the bigger picture. He is the vile symptom of a political system that is very sick indeed. As many will know, Yaxley-Lennon was released on bail last week. Almost immediately he made his way into the open arms of Fox News. Pathetically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he likened his treatment in prison (apparently, he had no television) to that of an inmate in Guantanamo Bay. As long as it is inferred that Muslims in the UK do not ‘fit in’, are prone to ‘radicalisation’ and constitute a threat to ‘our values’, unfortunately, misguided and hateful individuals like Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon will continue to be taken seriously.

Featured image: Counter-demo against the EDL in Leicester, credit Ashley Dace.

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