The Kashmiri meal of lamb, spinach and rice was served in fry pans placed straight on the table in the restaurant in Bury Park, Luton. Across the table was my old friend Pete who had just given me a tour of what The Independent calls ‘the epicentre of the global clash of civilisations’.
Luton is about half an hour north of London on the commuter train. It used to be famous for its Vauxhall car factory which attracted workers from Wales, then Ireland and then Bangladesh and Kashmir.
That’s when the Muslims moved in, two generations ago. Spreading along a valley, Luton became a workers’ island in a wealthy region of Tory commuters.
As Pete and I drove through Bury Park in the heart of the city of 200,000, we passed mosques and burka-clad women, a Polish work agency office, black migrant churches, and an apartment with a provocative oversized St George’s flag–a sure sign of an extreme-right English Defence League (EDL) supporter. Pete said that about 40,000 Muslims lived in Luton, over six times the national average of three per cent.
Before descending into the valley, we had cruised through streets of row houses, the heart of EDL territory. These streets were often festooned with St George’s flags, Pete explained, but ironically many of these ultra-English nationalists were Irish migrant stock.
Luton is the home base for the EDL which emerged in 2009 in response to an Islamist protest staged when British troops returned home from Afghanistan. Their nationalism is galvanised by what they see as the spread of sharia or Islamic law in England. Their symbol is the Crusader cross, with the logo: In hoc signo vinces (in this sign, conquer).
While mainly focused on England, EDL members marched in Amsterdam a year ago, when five Britons were among those arrested. They have initiated dozens of marches in Britain over the past two years, including one to support the House of Lords visit of controversial Dutch politician, Geert Wilders. These often led to violence and multiple arrests, especially when counter-demonstrations were held by groups like Unite Against Fascism (UAF).
Luton has also been perceived as a centre of Islamic radicalism, and was reported to be the staging base of the London 7/7 bombings. Over our Kashmiri meal, Pete said that was not really true; the bombers came from Leeds and simply parked their cars in Luton and took the train from there. Nevertheless several arrests had been made over the years in Luton, most recently related to a thwarted attack planned for Birmingham recently, he said.
So with the dangerous cocktail of the EDL up the hill, and the growing Muslim presence in the valley, what hope did Pete have of the future?
As a community worker based in an Anglican church in downtown Luton, Pete said he believed the presence of Christians actively building friendships with those of other faiths was crucial to defusing potential tension.
Pete himself represents Churches Together on the city’s Inter-Faith Council. In his view, neither right-wing extremism nor fundamentalist Islam reflected the town’s daily reality. Many Muslims in Luton resented the unfair image of the town as a terrorist hotbed. People of different faiths enjoyed a healthy interaction and he himself had close friendships with others on the council.
As we walked back to the car, Pete pointed out where crowds had gathered during an EDL march earlier this year, against what they saw as ‘spreading Islamisation’. The event threatened to turn really ugly when a counter-demonstration was announced by the UAF. Despite a city council appeal to the home secretary to ban the march, both protests were allowed to go ahead.
Some 3000 EDLers and 1000 UAFers were kept apart by 2000 police. Meanwhile about 1500 Muslims gathered in fear for their community and many locals turned out to be a buffer between them and the demonstrators. Pete and fellow community workers, including church members, circulated in the crowd, defusing the taunts of the demonstrators. Prominent leaders of Christian, Muslim and other faiths also were present to demonstrate a show of mutual trust.
The day passed without major incident, and Scotland Yard observers said it had been a copybook exercise. While the police presence had been a major factor in the peaceful outcome, for Pete the show of solidarity and respect among the faith leaders was crucial for long-term harmony and the welfare of the city.
Till next week,