This past Tuesday saw what was supposed to be an interview of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson take place on the breakfast TV show, Good Morning Britain (GMB). During the segment, host Piers Morgan and Tommy Robinson between them demonstrated everything that is wrong with how we deal with the problem of Islamist extremism. However, arguably of more interest was the social response to the interaction between them – a response which, for me, demonstrates an emerging dogmatism of those self-identifying as following “classical liberalism”.
History and Build-Up to the Interview
Robinson (real name ‘Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’) is a divisive figure in British politics. His leadership of the far-right “pressure group”, the English Defence League, led to the mobilisation of thousands of former football hooligans against what they saw as the increasing ‘islamisation’ of the UK. As head of the EDL, Robinson became well known for his anti-Islam (and commonly anti-Muslim) speeches in front of baying crowds. However, in 2013 he surprised everybody by stepping down to work with Quilliam – a counter-extremism think tank publicly headed by Maajid Nawaz – citing concerns about far-right infiltration.
More recently, Robinson has joined forces with the right-wing Rebel Media in Canada. For Rebel, he presents on-location reports of ‘social justice activist’ events and responses to Islamist extremism. The controversy that led him to be interviewed on GMB came in the fall-out of the Finsbury Park terror attack on Monday morning, after a far-right extremist stands accused of murder from mowing down Muslims outside an Islamic centre using a rented van. One of Robinson’s first thoughts was to tweet the following:
The mosque where the attack happened tonight has a long history of creating terrorists & radical jihadists & promoting hate & segregation
— Tommy Robinson 🇬🇧 (@TRobinsonNewEra) June 19, 2017
This is correct. Finsbury Park has a history of promoting the views of radical jihadist preachers, including the infamous Abu Hamza, However, since its reopening in 2013, the mosque is said to have become a central location within the local community.
Morgan vs. Robinson: The Interview
The interview started with Pier Morgan’s co-host, Susanna Reid asking Robinson about the tweet within the context of the Finsbury Park mosque’s apparently reformed nature of the Finsbury Park mosque. However, it soon descended into a shouting match between Morgan and Robinson, with them both speaking past each other on the main issues.
After both making personal arguments against the others’ pasts (a segment where Morgan exposed Robinson’s apparent hypocrisy), we then witnessed the part of the interview grabbing headlines across the country. Holding a copy of the Qur’an above his head, Robinson started quoting historical political figures and their views on Islam. In fairness to Robinson, he seems to have come a long way from his anti-Muslim rallies, and now does at least acknowledge the distinction between Muslims as people, and Islam as an ideology. In response to this, Morgan tried to shout over Robinson, screeching about how he should “show some respect” to people’s religious beliefs and to stop being so inflammatory. In an unprofessional move, Morgan then went on to hurl insults at Robinson, calling him (among other terms) an idiot.
The full exchange is available in the playlist above. In sum, though, the interview was turned by Robinson from being about his tweets and (according to the strap-line) “inciting islamophobia”, to being about quotations from Islamic scripture.
The Response to the Interview
Whenever two individuals sure of their moral righteousness get together, it is expected that sparks may fly. There’s no surprise, then, that Morgan and Robinson were unable to have a civilised interview about the controversial topics of Islam, Islamism, and recent terror attacks. However, the more interesting aspect of this interview, for me, has been the social response to it.
For full disclosure, I see myself as a secular liberal. I believe that individuals are entitled to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish, irrespective of my personal views, so long as they do not try to impose these views on others, or use them as a basis for public policy. This was the reason I defended Tim Farron’s stance when he was asked about his views about homosexual activities. Even if he did view them as sinful on a personal level, his recent voting record suggested to me that these beliefs did not play a role in his decision-making about the rights of gay people. I am ideologically opposed to those on both the far left and the far right, and see myself firmly in the political centre-ground. This is supported by a range of unscientific online tests, which broadly place my responses in the centre of various figures (see here).
My personal views on the interview have been documented elsewhere. I think that Robinson is right on Islam and it’s potential links to violent extremism (though of course there are cultural factors that contribute to radicalisation and offence preparation), while Morgan was unprofessional in trying to shut down that particular argument.
What struck me about the broader response most, though, was the outpouring of vitriol towards Piers Morgan. On one Facebook group, for example, members of “Liberal Principles vs. the Regressive Left” (which I now believe is potentially an ironic name) lambasted Morgan for his cowering to Islam. These individuals claim to endorse “classical liberal” values. My thinking would be that this should mean that they support Morgan’s right to speak and express his opinion. After all, the ‘classical liberals’ who follow the likes of Dave Rubin (of whom I am a big fan) online are supposed to be in favour of the free exchange of ideas.
Clearly, these responses could be due to such online groups being infiltrated by nefarious characters who belong to the ‘Alt-Right’ community. This idea loses credibility when people like Professor Gad Saad (again, of whom I am ordinarily a big fan) releases a video entitled “Piers Morgan is an Enemy of Reason and an Affront to Human Dignity“. Prof. Saad has personal experience of living in Islamist environments, and so his objection to Morgan’s approach with Robinson is partly to be understood. However, he has also called campus-based postmodernists and identity politics “an affront to the dignity of the individual“. A trend looks to be emerging…
My guess would be that those now castigating Morgan for his interview with Tommy Robinson were the same individuals supporting him as the poster-boy for free expression when his column about gender-neutral awards ceremonies caused a stir in May 2017. While I don’t have evidence for this, I think it’s a safe assumption given the overlap of the commentators on these issues (e.g., Gad Saad, Professor Jordan Peterson), and the content of online social networking groups.
This indicates to me a certain lack of intellectual honesty or integrity in the response to Piers Morgan in the past few days – and is evidence that those identifying as “classical liberals” are just as vulnerable to the dogmatism that they accuse other groups of engaging in. Given his stance on abortion, celebrity virtue-signalling, and gender, it’s clear that if we’re labelling Piers Morgan as a “regressive leftist”, the term is as good as dead. Just like “racist” and “islamophobe”, it is nothing more than a rhetorical device designed to malign those with whom you disagree.
My advice would be to follow the ideas of Kyle Kulinski (host of the YouTube channel “Secular Talk“). If we share more than 50% of the same opinions, we shouldn’t go for the jugular when we disagree on single issues. Disagree, of course, but to label an individual as “an affront to human dignity” is too far. By engaging in silencing, labelling, and condemnation of single-issue disagreements, we behave in the same way as the dogmatists on the left and the authoritarians on the right. That is not centrist, and it is not “classically liberal”.