Was Amazon’s removal of Robinson’s anti-Islam book a mistake?
In a flurry of activity over the past few weeks, Tommy Robinson — British alt-right provocateur, adviser to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and convicted fraudster — was banned from Facebook and Instagram, had a book removed from sale on Amazon, and was referred to prosecutors on allegations of contempt of court.
Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary and former attorney general, said: “We all believe that freedom of speech has limits. Criminal behavior… is beyond the reach of the type of freedom of speech that we believe should be protected.” This is simply a statement of legal fact, and few would dispute that it should be.
I do confess, though, to being baffled as to what Robinson has done in the past few weeks that prompted such concerted action, not least because it isn’t clear that he was barred from these platforms for breaking the law. The contempt allegation relates to a video Robinson posted on Facebook last May and, in any case, the decision to proceed with his prosecution was announced after he was banned from the platform.
Perhaps more interesting than the social media ban, though it attracted less attention, was Amazon’s decision to withdraw Robinson’s anti-Islam book from sale. I very much doubt that it is a riveting read. The book’s blurb is a mixture of conspiracy theory and self-help, promising the reader that they will “understand the Qur’an within minutes instead of months,” and to unveil secrets that Western elites have “had proof of for over 150 years.” It claims to provide “the knowledge to make politicians find some backbone.”
Robinson’s co-author, Peter McLoughlin, says he worked as a postgraduate researcher and teacher in several British universities, before realizing that they were hotbeds of “cultural Marxism” (a phrase that appears several times more in his self-penned biography on Amazon).
I spent some time trawling through McLoughlin’s page on Gab. It is mostly inane for the same reason that most social media is inane: Nobody is a genius if one can read their every passing thought. But he is well within the nexus of the alt-right. Amazon suggests that, if I like his books, then I might like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
It is no surprise that Robinson and McLoughlin ended up writing together, although, given their relative fame, I think McLoughlin got the better end of the bargain.
I don’t believe that Amazon banned this book for commercial reasons. Amazon sells a good number of offensive books and, unlike a social media site, there is no confusion between the platform and the publisher. Amazon is simply too convenient for a boycott to have much effect in the long run, however much people try. And, if the reasoning was that it wouldn’t sell many copies, nor do most of the books sold on the site. But, if it was banned for ideological reasons, then Amazon made a mistake, not least because of the publicity it created.
It is no surprise that Robinson and McLoughlin ended up writing together, although, given their relative fame, I think McLoughlin got the better end of the bargain. Robinson has a long, if inconsistent, track record of concerns about Islam and Muslims. In the late 2000s, he set up the English Defence League, a far-right campaign group-cum-political party apparently populated with football hooligans.
A few years later, he left the group in a shower of publicity, apparently reformed while working on BBC TV programs "The Big Questions" and "When Tommy Met Mo." If this reformation was genuine, it was short-lived, as not long afterwards he was setting up the UK chapter of Pegida, the anti-Muslim protest movement that started in Germany. He currently serves as an adviser to the leader of UKIP, a populist grouping that seems to have lost its meaning since the UK’s Brexit referendum and now hopes to find it again on the far right.
Despite the unease he builds in people like me — brought up in the milieu of the liberal elites — Robinson has hefty international support. When he was briefly imprisoned last year on a contempt of court conviction that was quashed on appeal (and for which he will soon face a retrial), US commentators on the mainstream right wing regarded him as a martyr to freedom of speech. According to a report in the Times of London, he received more than £350,000 ($459,000) in donations in the two weeks after his imprisonment.
The ability of the far right to monetize its views is one of the most interesting features of the social media age. Confected outrage goes both ways: The “woke” Twitterati may be able to launch a witch-hunt against a public figure for something they said a long time ago; but, equally, those who see it and disagree will find their own champions. Robinson’s former assistant told the Times that “your outrage, valid as it is, will be monetized.”
This takes us back to Amazon removing his book. According to McLoughlin’s figures (not quite an independent source), sales rocketed from that moment. I don’t imagine it would have attracted masses of attention otherwise.
Of course, the reaction of the media and political elites to the likes of Robinson doesn’t help. Cries of “Islamophobia” are a waste of breath to those who don’t care, and off-putting to those who think that Robinson might have a point. That latter category can be worked with, if we stop treating them as racist, and start thinking of them as a significant part of our voting population.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby