In the last weeks, it's been in the news that Tommy Robinson, leader of the far right "English Defence League", who stage large street protests and rallies, usually against immigration and Islam, has quit the group he founded, facilitated by the anti-extremism Muslim thinktank The Quilliam Foundation.
Islam is a very present religion in this country. The largest ethnic group after White British is British Asian - meaning Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi. Of those people, I believe the vast majority are Muslim. Particularly in London there is also a very large population of Middle Eastern people, who are also mostly Muslim (in my neighbourhood, for example, Arabic is the second most commonly spoken language), and there are many Somalians and North Africans. People of these various groups have been here for generations and it's perfectly normal to know British Asian people who are among the most "British" of anyone you know. There are also many recent immigrants and their families, so like all people, it's a mix.
Now, the EDL. It was founded in Luton (where white British people account for under 60% of the population) as a backlash against an extremist Islamic group since banned as a terrorist group. Tommy Robinson had seen one of their rallies and decided to start the EDL as a protest group. Several years on and they're infamous. Their rallies are frequently drunken and often violent and generous known as ignorant louts.
Following an appearance on a big issues chat show, Tommy Robinson and a prominent British Muslim, Mo Ansar, opened up a dialogue. This documentary follows that and culminates in the recent shock announcement that he was quitting the EDL and joining forces with with the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation founded by a former extremist Muslim who now fights Islamic extremism. Their slogan is "Challenging Extremism, Promoting Pluralism, Inspiring Change."
The documentary is brief and by virtue of that it can't go into huge detail, but it does give an overview of what has led to this announcement. I'm surprised at how much was filmed, and do think it's great that that footage exists as a historical document. On the way, Muslims challenge each other and Tommy. Seeing that Islam is not a single monolith starts to change his views, as he resolves and clarifies what his own beliefs and struggles are.
A few issues I have with it:
-There is a world outside of religion. There was literally no discussion at any point of non-religious people or secular society. Tommy Robinson, like most British people, is a secular Anglican as far as I know. I.E. he'll put 'Christian' on the census and is not in any way a practising Christian other than perhaps the occasional Christmas service.
-There was not enough challenging on issues relating to women, from either side. I was impressed at how much was mentioned, as I never really think of the EDL as having female members, but more is needed.
-At no point did anyone point that every single one of the problems these people have with the Quran exists in the Bible (slavery, multiple wives, child abuse, etc). The closest that anyone came was mentioning that the Judeo-Christian tradition overall has a decent track record of historicising certain elements of their holy books that do not fit with modern society.
-A non-Muslim benevolently explaining to Muslims how to grow and change as Muslims is...problematic, to say the least. On the other hand, toward the end this was challenged, and I think his primary role in any case is urging English people to be more moderate and to go learn about their neighbours.
In spite of those complaints, it's very interesting viewing and the the progress over the course of the program is heartening. Having moderate people on both "sides", for lack of a better word, come together and discuss the middle ground is a way forward to fight this kind of bigotry, extremism, racism, and violence. This is a small step but a good step.