Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Tommy Robinson, Terrorism and Hearts That Change

Repentance is not a word used much nowadays outside a theological discussion. Basically, it means to feel regret for one's actions and make an effort to do better in future. As Wikipedia says:
 "Today, it is generally seen as involving a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life".
In a religious context, of course, repentance involves sorrow for sinful behavior, confessing that sin to a priest or to God himself in prayer, as laid down in the Bible verse, 1 John 1:9: 
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
 Divine forgiveness is freely given, but the repentance must be accompanied by genuinely sincere attempts to never repeat that particular sin, or it is worthless. Evangelical Christians call failure to do this "backsliding". 
In a political context, repentance is probably not a word that should be used. After all, I could be a Communist secret policeman who, when times change, becomes a vocal supporter of liberal democracy. If, as a secret policeman, I am a serial adulterer and continue engaging in infidelity following my political conversion, then I am still, by religious standards, an unrepentant sinner. Changing political behaviour is not the same as a change in moral behaviour. 
Nevertheless, I think we can legitimately accuse Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, pictured above, of political backsliding and false repentance. Back in 2013, he resigned as leader of the English Defence League, and announced his intention to work with Quilliam to counter extremism among Muslims. At the time, Esther Rantzen made the very valid point that if we treated Robinson with overt cynicism, we would only discourage others who wanted to come in from the extremist fringe.
Sadly, that cynicism was not misplaced in the case of Tommy Robinson. He did work with Quilliam for a while, later claiming that he was being paid £2000 a month, which the organization denied. Whatever he was paid, it did not stop him from pleading guilty (confessing his sin?) to two charges of mortgage fraud in 2012, for which he received a prison sentence of 18 months. Robinson is no stranger to the judicial system and has a number of criminal convictions, including being jailed for passport fraud in 2013. In 2015, he returned to his anti-Islamic campaigning by founding a UK branch of Pegida, the anti-Islamic movement founded in Germany. He then became a correspondent of Rebel MediaUK in which he features strongly, propounding his anti-Muslim views. He is now in prison, as we all know, for contempt of court. A disturbingly large number of his supporters demonstrated in London calling for the government to "Free Tommy".

So - what price repentance or changes of heart by political extremists? One of Lee Rigby's killers, Michael Adebolajo, has expressed remorse for his actions. As the Sun said:
 "The killer has finally admitted his guilt and expressed "regret" in a bombshell jail confession, adding that he plans to write a letter of apology to the soldier's family."
Safaa Boular, the 18-year old  girl convicted on terrorist charges recently, has also expressed remorse for her actions. As The Guardian says: 
"In the witness stand, Safaa appeared as a typical teenager, having discarded her strict Islamic clothing for pencil skirts and Nike tracksuit tops.She told jurors she had ditched religion after speaking to other young people behind bars, having spent her schoolgirl days knowing “Islam and nothing but Islam”. She said watching the Isis videos now reduced her to tears because she “could not believe” she was capable of watching them before."

Now, if these declarations are sincere, they are to be welcomed. But this is similar to what happened with Tommy Robinson back in 2013. Robinson is utterly opposed to Adebolajo, Boular and the ideology they claim to have abandoned, but his "backsliding" will make people very suspicious of the true aims of them both, and of others like them in the future.

Tommy Robinson will like that.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with bringing religious terminology into political and law-and-order arenas is that you have to introduce the corollary of repentance: forgiveness. Are we thinking of forgiving these people, whether they be neo-nazis or jihadi fanatics? I hope not, because then we'd need to consider whether, since they've repented and we've forgiven them, we have any right to keep them locked up any longer.

    Repentance: as I wrote on this blog in February about the serial rapist John Worboys: “Worboys consistently protested his innocence and had appeals lodged against his conviction throughout most of his prison sentence. About 18 months before the date when the parole board could consider his case, he changed tack and withdrew his protestations of innocence and his appeals. In other words, he went from defiantly proclaiming his innocence to humble, repentant offender almost overnight.” You can read the full post here.

    I believe similar reasons apply when some prisoners seem to find God, or in the case of Safaa Boular, for whom religion was the cause of her crimes, lost Allah and adopted the demeanour of a normal teen. Either way, the tactic is to adopt a persona that is closer to the accepted norms in our society: such metamorphoses should be viewed with extreme scepticism.

    Forgiveness: I have long believed that the only people who have a right to forgive are the victims themselves. This of course means in the case of murder forgiveness is impossible. I have never, and will never, forgive the man who murdered someone I knew well. Forgiveness has no place in the judicial system. We punish people for a variety of reasons:

    Protection of society.

    These factors are all interlinked, but if in our justice system, repentance and forgiveness could by themselves result in release, you can sure that there would be an awful lot of remorseful convicts. Obviously there is an element of it in the parole board, but that is regulated and controlled and is not, in theory at least, subject to heart-wrenching displays of contrived remorse or spotlit media manipulation.

    Our justice system has to remain dispassionate. If someone is genuinely remorseful five years into a twenty year sentence for a horrendous crime, that is insufficient to justify an early release. Society expects people to pay for their crimes, and sentences that are generally viewed as too lenient bring the system into disrepute. On the other hand, we cannot have mob rule, so some kind of accommodation has to be reached. Sometimes the courts get this right, and sometimes they don't: as they're operated by humans, this is to be expected.

    I agree entirely that Tommy Robinson's abandonment of far right ideology was insincere: he was clearly attempting some kind of entryism into the respectable mainstream, but his natural tendencies couldn't be repressed forever, and in time he reverted to type.

    Let's leave repentance and forgiveness to the churches and punish our wrong-doers appropriately for their crimes – not for the sorrow and regret they exhibit when caught out.