I am not Tommy Robinson.
Yet I might well have been.
The self-styled leader of the English Defence League (EDL) and I were born in the same town, less than a year apart. Though I do not have memory of having known Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Lennon) it is quite possible that our paths crossed as children, playing in the same parks, going to same shops in the Arndale centre, being fascinated by the flamingo fountain there, and repulsed by the fishy smell of the market which adjoined the shopping centre.
Luton was, and still is, I understand, a town divided. For personal reasons, I promised never to set foot there again; a promise I have kept for 10 years now. But one could hardly fail to spot the wildly different characters of the estates of Bury Park and Marsh Farm, not least in the ethnicity of those you would meet there. It is here that one finds the roots of the EDL, but it is also where I find my roots. For that reason, I take special interest in this group, their activities and their coverage; I can’t help but think from time to time, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’
One of the greatest weapons that is used in modern rhetoric is the demonization of The Other. Any person or group that does not match our demographic, our religious or political views, is visualised and spoken of as an enemy. The EDL employ this tactic when they talk of Islam. Yet at the same time, I also see generalisations made about the EDL which are equally as unhelpful. As long as we consider (and hence treat) them as The Other, then there will be little progress and much more antagonisation.
If we can slap a label on someone, it makes it all the easier to make generalisation based on that label; in effect, dehumanising them.
The EDL should not be treated as the bad guys, irrespective of what we think of their ideology. They are our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, cousins and neighbours. [According to a Nov 2011 Demos report, there is an 81:19 ratio of men:women in the EDL] Incidentally, the rest of that report is well worth reading, in order get a better understanding of the EDL than one might otherwise gain from following any news coverage they may get.
In order to break the cycle of alienation that is felt by those on the far right, we must not shun them and push them further to the fringes of society. The people at the mosque in York, who offered tea and biscuits and a game of football were the ones with the right idea.
I didn’t get a chance to listen to the interview with Robinson/Lennon that the BBC broadcast on the Today programme the other day. If the reports I have read are faithful, then the interview was not that brilliant, with not enough challenges being made and some coming away with the impression that the BBC had provided a platform for propaganda. One interesting point hit me with a great deal of irony. Apparently, Robinson/Lennon claimed that the writing of ‘EDL’ that was allegedly found at the site of the burnt down Islamic centre in Muswell Hill in no way indicated that the EDL could be faulted for the fire. Instead, he posed the question “[what if someone had written ‘David Cameron’? Would that make him at fault?]”. In essence, his argument is that the arson was not sanctioned by the EDL, but may instead have been perpetrated by someone who sees in the EDL an ideology similar to their own and who then ‘claims the name’ – much as we have seen some violent people carry out horrific and vile acts whilst acting in what they saw as the name of Islam.
The term ‘extremist’ is frequently used in conjunction with the EDL, not without good reason. Yet the root word ‘extreme’ can only really be used in conjunction with another word; extreme what? Extreme ironing? Extreme violence? Extreme hatred? What about extreme love? Why can’t an extremist be someone who is self-emptying and compassionate in the extreme?
So why love the EDL?
Is it because of their ideology? Certainly not.
Is it because the people are inherently warm-hearted and likeable? To some maybe, though I find it tough.
I love the people of the EDL because I am a christian and am therefore compelled to. There is no act of violence, intolerance or hatred that one human being can do to another which is unforgiveable. The scandal of the gospel of grace is that no one is persona non grata, no one is beyond the pale. In thinking through the parable of the Good Samaritan, I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that today’s Samaritans might well include the EDL. They are the last people we might think of as helping others. But that’s the point that Jesus gave in answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’
How can this love be demonstrated?
This is not a manifesto; I hope you can come up with your own (and better ideas) than I can.
To me, the first step in demonstrating love has to be a change in the language used when talking to and about the EDL. There may be good reason why the label of “extremist” might fit, but I do not think it helps. To do so only alienates them further.
I am painfully aware that even in the rest of this post I have used the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’, though I have done so more clarity than anything else. It’s only if we can move away from this that we can really hope to heal the wounds of social discord that have led to this group feeling liking persecuted outsiders in their own community, before then inflicting that feeling on others.
There are many issues to be tackled and there is much more that can and should be done. I understand organisation like Hope Not Hate have been fairly prominent in simultaneously denouncing violence and being open to discussion with the EDL.
My belief is that the church (as a whole) should be open to welcome in members of the EDL, even though that may cause ructions in some communities. Unless the church is open to welcoming the ostracised, the frowned-upon and the intolerant, we would not be faithfully practising the gospel of grace. Grace is costly, that’s a point driven home by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe now we need another of his ilk; a voice of love, humanism and grace.