How Luton became the epicentre of the global clash of civilisations

Mark Hughes visits the Bedforshire town shaken by a dangerous cocktail of radical Islam and English Defence League provocation

The sight of police officers standing guard outside the terraced home of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly yesterday afternoon revived unwelcome memories for Luton.

As reporters and TV camera crews gathered on either side of the cordons on the non-descript road, Muslim residents gathered to watch their town thrust once more into the spotlight. When one man asked an officer what was going on, he was told, "you'll have to watch it on the news".

Luton has long been saddled by the suggestion that it is a hotbed of terrorism. The now-banned extremist Muslim group Al-Muhajiroun was based there and it is where the July 7 bombers met before they launched their attacks on London's transport network in 2005.

The news that the 28-year-old man who carried out a suicide bomb attack on the streets of Stockholm had studied at the University of Bedfordshire and was living in the Biscot area of the town added to that characterisation.

But Luton's image reached a new low this week as it appears to have acquired a similar association with far-right extremism. When the English Defence League (EDL) decided to invite Pastor Terry Jones – the American preacher who had planned to hold an international day of Koran burning – to the UK, it was to a rally in Luton. He intends to use his platform at the rally, on 5 February, to talk "against the evils and destructiveness of Islam".

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, says she is still considering whether to allow Pastor Jones into the country.

The polarisation of extreme views in Luton is perhaps inevitable. The EDL claims it was sparked into formation by extremist activities in the town. Stephen Lennon, the group's founder is from Luton and, in a newspaper interview earlier this year, he said: "We didn't let the IRA recruit on the streets of England when we were at war with them. So why were Islamic extremists allowed to recruit in Luton?"

A flashpoint came in March when members of the Royal Anglian Regiment were abused by Muslim protesters as they returned from duty in Iraq. A small group of protesters waved banners declaring the soldiers "butchers of Basra". Two months later another demonstration took place, this time against those who had organised the first march. This time 500 protesters, calling themselves the United People of Luton, took to the streets wearing shirts bearing the cross of St George and waving banners which read "No Sharia Law in the UK".

But while it may appear to be a town divided, many of those who live here disagree. Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain, lives in Luton. "It is right to say that there is a small group of Muslim extremists who have managed to get themselves untold amounts of media coverage and there is also the EDL who claim they formed in retaliation to the protests which greeted the soldiers returning from Iraq," he said. "But Muslims in Luton are fed up with the very unfair image of the town as a terrorist hotbed. Yes, we've got a few crazies, but they are just a small group of loudmouths who should be prosecuted when they step out of line."

Mr Bunglawala accepts that extremist activities feed into a an anti-Muslim rhetoric in Luton, one that will be articulated most vehemently by Pastor Jones should he be allowed to visit. But banning him, he fears, will play into the hands of far-right extremists. "It will be used as 'evidence' that the Government is caving in to Muslim pressure," he said. "It will make an already fraught situation worse."

Peter Adams represents Churches Together – a body of Luton's churches – on the Luton Council of Faith Leaders. Speaking about the town's links to extremism, both Muslim and far-right, he said: "Neither of these reflect the reality of life in the town. This is not what Luton is all about by any means. Obviously we do have extremists and we do have two different views in the town that are extreme, but these people and these views are right on the margins. We have a healthy interaction between people of different faiths.

"Yes, there are groups of young people from either side who will face off given the chance, but that is no different to an all-white community with a gang problem. It is just given another name in this context."

The al-Abdaly case was being given as an example of how he was not representative of the town's Muslim community. Farasat Latif, secretary of the Luton Islamic Centre, said al-Abdaly attended for a couple of months in 2006 or 2007. He described him as "bubbly" and "well-liked" but with increasingly radical and violent views.

But the fact that he was not even known by his neighbours added to suggestion that he is in no way representative of the town. Even his wife, Mona Thwany, told reporters that she was unaware of her husband's plan.

But, while the majority of the community was expressing shock at how one of their members could perpetrate such acts of violence, extremists with links to the town were already proclaiming him as one of their own. Anjem Choudary, a radical cleric who helped form Al-Muhajiroun in Luton, said: "People's shock that it has happened is what surprises me. It's the classic case of the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand."

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