A town divided?

Searchlight Magazine by Nick Lowles | Tuesday, 25 January 2011

In a few weeks’ time thousands of English Defence League (EDL) supporters will take to the streets of Luton for their latest anti-Muslim demonstration. What will probably be their biggest demonstration to date also has the potential to be the most violent. It has all the ingredients for trouble, something Luton can ill afford, especially at a time when the town is already attracting an unenviable reputation as a base for extremism.

In a few weeks’ time thousands of English Defence League (EDL) supporters will take to the streets of Luton for their latest anti-Muslim demonstration. What will probably be their biggest demonstration to date also has the potential to be the most violent. It has all the ingredients for trouble, something Luton can ill afford, especially at a time when the town is already attracting an unenviable reputation as a base for extremism.

The Stockholm suicide bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, who studied in LutonThe news could not have been worse. The announcement that the Stockholm suicide bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly (pictured) had lived and studied in Luton gave the English Defence League a clear propaganda coup. To the anti-Muslim group, which itself originates in the Bedfordshire town, it was further proof that Islamic extremism was both rife and dangerous.

Journalists and reporters from news agencies around the globe headed up the M1 to report from the heartland of Britain’s new extremism. Unfortunately there was plenty of material for them to exploit as 28-year-old al-Abdaly was only the latest in a growing list of Islamic extremists linked to the town. Indeed, in 2008, a leaked British intelligence report identified the town as home to one of the main concentrations of extremists in the country.

Luton first became associated with Islamic terrorism when three young Muslims from the town were killed in a US rocket attack in Kabul. Mohammad Umar, Aftab Manzoor and Munir Afzal, who had travelled to Kabul to fight the US and British forces, died when a house where they were attending a meeting was attacked.

News of the deaths in Kabul was announced by al-Muhajiroun, a now banned Islamic extremist group which had strong links in Luton. The group’s founder, Omar Bakri Mohammed, was a regular visitor until he was banned from returning to Britain soon after the July 2005 bombings.

In an interview with the media at the time, the local al-Muhajiroun spokesman boasted of having 50 members and 200 followers in the town. Others put the figures much lower but even they admitted that the group’s message had an appeal among some young Muslims.

Another former Luton resident is Abu Hamza, the radical cleric now in prison. In September 2002 Abu Hamza set up the Islamic Council of Britain and soon afterwards held a conference at Finsbury Park mosque, in north London, entitled “September the 11th 2001: A Towering Day in History”.

Bakri, who attended the conference, said that attendees “look at September 11 like a battle, as a great achievement by the Mujahideen against the evil superpower. I never praised September 11 after it happened but now I can see why they did it.”

Leaflets distributed at the conference referred to the 9/11 terrorists as the “Magnificent 19”.

A brother of one of those killed in Kabul was Salahuddin Amin, a member of the fertiliser bomber gang, who police considered to be pivotal in the link between British extremists and the al-Qaeda network.

Born in London, Amin grew up in Pakistan before moving to Luton with his family at the age of 16. He became radicalised during a trip to Pakistan in 1999 and on his return began attending militant political meetings held away from Luton’s main mosque. These meetings mixed religion and politics to encourage armed support for jihadi fighters.

It was at these meetings that Amin met a group of men who were developing a jihadi support network, linking British Pakistani campaigners with Mujahideen groups abroad.

Luton again played a role In the run-up to the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005. It was at a service station just north of Luton that the leaders of the fertiliser bomb plot, which aimed to rival the terror attacks of 11 September and the 7 July bombers, met on at least two occasions, watched by MI5.

Organising the meeting was Mohammed Quayam Khan, who worked as a taxi driver and at a café in the centre of Luton. A family man, he also liaised with al-Qaeda and helped it to set up a training camp in Pakistan. He has never been arrested.

The 7 July bombers met in Luton before heading to London to carry out their attacks, abandoning their cars at the station.

In March 2009 the town hit the national headlines as fewer than a dozen Islamic extremists linked to Islam4UK, an offshoot of al-Muhajiroun, protested against the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment, who were returning from Afghanisatan.

Their protest, in which they carried placards reading “Go to hell” and accusing British soldiers of being “baby killers”, caused instant and general outrage, particularly in the tabloid newspapers, several of which devoted their front page to the story.

It also caused a backlash in Luton and led directly to the formation of the EDL.

The town’s roots

The origins of Luton lie in the sixth century when the Saxons established an outpost on the River Lea called Lea tun, but it was in the 17th century that today’s town was properly formed.

In 1801 its population stood at just 3,095 but a century later it had grown to 39,000. The town’s biggest expansion started in 1905 when Vauxhall Motors opened what was then the largest UK car factory. Following the end of the Second World War several slums were cleared and huge council estates were built to house 30,000 workers at the car plant.

Large numbers of Afro-Caribbean immigrants arrived in the 1950s to fill the engineering jobs, followed by Asian immigrants, largely from Pakistan. Swelled more recently by arrivals from Eastern Europe, the population of the borough of Luton now stands at 185,000.

According to the last census the local population is 70% white, 20% Asian and 8% Afro-Caribbean. Just under 60% define themselves as Christians while 15% are Muslim, with the same number claiming to have no religion.

However, more recent immigration and higher birth rates among minority groups are rapidly changing the demographics of the town. In 2005, 46% of school pupils were from non-white ethnic backgrounds.

As in many towns with large minority communities racism and discrimination were part of postwar life. A council report produced a few years ago noted that “discrimination is still rife in all parts of Luton”.

EDL founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, alias Tommy Robinson (left) at West London Magistrates’ Court in November following his arrest in Kensington for assaulting a police officer on Armistice Day  (Photo David Hoffman)
EDL founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, alias Tommy Robinson (left) at West London Magistrates’ Court in November following his arrest in Kensington for assaulting a police officer on Armistice Day (Photo David Hoffman)

It added: “Racial prejudice is still everywhere and sources have said that throughout most areas of Luton, racial harassment can be easily found and started up from all angles, especially through the increasingly deprived areas of Biscot and Dallow, where the Muslim population is also strong.

“The Bangladeshi community in Luton is growing more displeased as there continues to be a lack of a political voice to represent their own specific needs within the local community.”

Depressingly, the report concluded: “There is little mixing between Luton’s social communities, so Luton’s community outreach program, originally engineered by Luton Borough council, still remains fragile and only skin deep, having failed to improve matters significantly.”

This picture was backed up by evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Terrorism and Community Relations. It noted: “Luton has serious socio-economic deprivation in a few neighbourhoods. The Muslim population of the town is mainly concentrated in the two most deprived wards – Biscot and Dallow. The unemployment among the Pakistani/Kashmiri and Bangladeshi communities is much higher than in other groups. These communities also disproportionately suffer under achievement in schools and colleges, poor housing, poor health and poor transport facilities.”

It continued: “The younger generation, being mainly born and brought up here, have higher aspirations from this society than their parents but often face barriers in accessing employment and educational facilities on a level playing field. This is due to many factors including their socio-economic disadvantage as well as racial prejudice that exist in society and its institutions. Young Muslim boys in particular feel excluded and alienated in a variety of ways. Colour prejudice appears to be deep in this society and Islamophobia already existed before 9/11.”


Luton’s economic decline began in the 1970s when money for social housing dried up and many of the postwar estates declined. Affordable social housing was in short supply and overcrowding and tower blocks fell into disrepair. Unemployment rose as the Vauxhall car plant, which at its peak in 1967 employed 37,000 people, began to shrink. Crime grew and Muslim and white ghettoes emerged.

In July 1981 Luton experienced three days of rioting as black and white youths joined together in many of the town’s poor communities. Some put this down to copycat action following the Brixton riots but there was growing discontent locally.

The 1980s saw the beginning of a severe contraction in manufacturing and thousands of jobs were lost. By 2002 Vauxhall closed its plant completely. It had produced almost 7.5 million cars during its existence.

The declining economy increased stress on the local community and deepened rivalry and division within it. Growing racism was one manifestation of this.

In 1981 a rise in serious racist attacks, including one on a mosque and the petrol bombing of a Sikh temple, led to the emergence of an active movement against racism in Luton. In May an anti-racist march organised by Luton Youth Movement was confronted by racist skinheads. During three days of rioting in July 1981 a pub in Bury Park frequented by racist skinheads was attacked by black and white youths.

While many football hooligan gangs during this period associated themselves with the far right, Luton was quite different. From the beginning the MIGs (Men in Gear), named after the designer clothes they wore, was a multiracial hooligan firm though it included white and black men rather than Asians.

This alignment, partly due to football fashion but also due to the dispersal of the Afro-Caribbean community throughout the town, continues to this day as we see black youths and men running with the local EDL.

Tensions between the MIGs and Asian youths began to grow in 2001. During the run-up to the Oldham riots Luton hooligans regularly frequented nazi and hooligan websites promising to travel to the northern town to help out. This never materialised but trouble was brewing closer to home.

In the aftermath of news that several local men had been killed in Afghanistan rumours circulated through the town that the MIGs were planning trouble in the Asian areas. Police warned Asian shops and businesses to be on their guard and the local newspaper carried full-page adverts promoting harmony and tolerance.

The following year there was serious trouble between football hooligans and Luton’s Asian community but the culprits were Plymouth Argyle fans, 250 of whom had turned up for a fight. After clashing with the MIGs before and after the match the Plymouth gang, the Central Element, found themselves in a predominantly Asian area and serious fighting erupted. One Plymouth hooligan was stabbed in the chest and several others were arrested.

When the MIGs heard about these clashes they contacted their Plymouth rivals and offered to join forces to take on the Asians. However, this came to nothing as the police escorted the visitors out of town.

In 2005 Luton police dealt with 171 race hate incidents representing a 50% increase in reported incidents over the previous year. The majority of the victims (42%) were of Asian appearance and most offenders (40%) were of white/European origin. The victims were subjected to assault, harassment and verbal abuse.


As previously stated the catalyst for the formation of the EDL was the demonstration by followers of Islam4UK against the Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade.

A few weeks later, under the name United People of Luton, hundreds went on the rampage in a Asian area overturning cars, smashing shop windows and attacking people. Thirty-five people were arrested.

The formation of the EDL followed. The new group formally applied to hold a demonstration in the town later that summer but was thwarted by a huge campaign led by HOPE not hate. Eventually the council and the police applied to the Home Secretary for a ban, which was granted.

The two main EDL leaders, Stephen Laxley-Lennon (known in the EDL as Tommy Robinson) and Kevin Carroll both originate from Luton.

A cycle of extremism

The extremists in Luton represent a minority of the town’s population but they are increasingly attracting national and international attention.

The news of al-Abdaly’s link to Luton came a few days after reports that the EDL had invited Pastor Terry Jones to address its February rally. The Florida-based leader of the 50-strong Dove World Outreach Center attracted the world’s attention last year when he threatened to burn the Koran on 11 September.

After a huge outcry, including a 12,000-strong online petition organised by the HOPE not hate campaign, the EDL was forced to withdraw its invitation after it became clear that his hardline views would embarrass even it.

Coupled with the Swedish suicide bomber the incident reinforced the cycle of extremism that appears to operate in the town. As the EDL spoke out against al-Abdaly so the Islamist extremists spoke out against Pastor Jones and the EDL.

The Luton-based extremist Sayful Islam blamed the EDL and “Britain’s hatred of Islam” for inspiring al-Abdaly’s attack and thinks that Luton is a battleground. He told The Sun: “Luton has become a battleground between Islam and those who oppose Islam.

“The English Defence League started in Luton. And because of this conflict this has made Muslims more aware of situations around the world like Iraq and Afghanistan and made people do something about it.”

Peter Adams, a community worker and Anglican on the Luton Council of Faiths, which aims to bring ethnic communities together, despairs. “Extremism breeds extremism. We want to see that cycle broken. I am afraid the EDL are continuing that cycle. The bomber does not represent the Muslim community here.”

A leading Luton Islamic leader has denounced the town’s portrayal as a “hotbed of extremism” by sections of the national media and warned it could lead to a rise in racial tensions.

Qadeer Baksh, chairman of the Luton Islamic Centre, told the media: “It’s very sad to hear Luton described in these terms. There are more than 20,000 Muslims in the town but probably a small handful of these have links to extremism.”

The answer, it seems, is to give a voice to the mainstream majority who reject the extremism and racism that currently dominates the agenda.

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