Luton: the enemy within?

An anti-war protest by Muslim extremists at a homecoming parade for British troops has divided opinion within the community – and raised the threat of ethnic tension
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The Independent Online

The gruesome collage of photos of bloodied and dead children carried the headline "Iraq War Casualties". Abu Omar and his friend Abu Shadeed stood next to the carefully arranged stall yesterday afternoon in Bury Park, the bustling and vibrant heartland of Luton's Asian community. Dressed in identical black tunics and both sporting long full beards, they handed out religious leaflets from a neatly displayed pack of plastic folders and engaged in conversation with the few locals happy to stop and talk.

Earlier this week, the same gory poster was held aloft by a small but vocal group of Luton Muslims who protested against a homecoming parade for troops returning from Iraq.

The Royal Anglians had just come back from a tour of Basra and were parading through the town as part of the army's policy of organising morale-boosting parades for the troops when they return home.

Instead the march was marred by ugly scenes as pro-war locals, enraged by the protesters' banners proclaiming "Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra" and their chants of "Burn in Hell", turned on them and began shouting their own abuse. Police were forced to make two arrests and had to protect the anti-war protesters from the angry crowd.

The protest was organised by former members of Al Muhajiroun, the banned group founded by the radical preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed. Abu Omar and Abu Shadeed were two of the protesters. Yesterday, as the fallout from their hate-filled demonstration reverberated, both of them were unrepentant.

"We supposedly have a country that prides itself on freedom of expression," said Abu Omar. "Yet as soon as Muslims like us say something which conflicts with people's views, freedom of expression goes out of the window. We are told to shut up and keep quiet."

Abu Shadeed added: "I felt I had no choice but to protest. When I heard that British troops were coming to celebrate killing innocent Iraqis in my town, I knew I had to say something."

The uncompromising views of the pair and their decision to protest at a homecoming parade has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Luton's Muslims. The vast majority of the town's 20,000 Asians are Pakistanis with family ties in Kashmir, the strife-torn Himalayan region that has long been a magnet for those attracted to jihad.

Many commentators were quick to describe the Bedfordshire town as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. And, given Luton's recent past, it is easy to see why such a label has been applied. The 7/7 London bombers travelled from Luton to the capital, while one of the key members of another bomb plot – an attempt to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent and the Ministry of Sound nightclub – came from the town.

But those defending Luton's reputation have pointed out that, in a town of 20,000 Muslims, only between 20 and 30 people came out to support the protest. Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, lives in Luton. "The people who organised this protest are not representative of the town," he insisted yesterday. "They are viewed with contempt within Luton and within the wider Muslim community.

"The best example of that is the fact that they handed out flyers across the town to try and get support for this march, yet only the same hardcore 20 people turned up. There were more Muslims in the crowd cheering the soldiers than in the protest jeering them.

"They look for opportunities to create tension between Muslims and non-Muslims and they saw this as an easy target. They bring disgrace on the reputation of Luton and on other British Muslims but they seem to revel in it.

"I understand that they are against the war in Iraq and so are the overwhelming majority of Muslims, but we realise that the group to protest against is the Government, not the army. The soldiers just go where they are told. It was not them who started the war."

In the busy vegetable and fashion markets around Dunstable Road, the busy high street that runs through the centre of Bury Park, opinion was divided among Luton's Muslims over whether the protest should have gone ahead. But almost everyone was angry at the local authorities and the army for hosting a victory parade in a town with a large Muslim population. The parade, they said, was just as needlessly provocative as the protest against it.

Abdullah a mobile phone shop owner, said he first noticed flyers encouraging Muslims to demonstrate against the parade a month ago and had been deliberating whether to join them or not. "I knew the protest was going on but I decided not to go," he said. "I was busy with my work yesterday, but I was very angry that troops were parading through Luton so I support what the protesters did."

His friend Muhammad was equally critical of the parade. "They could have marched through somewhere like St Albans, where there are hardly any Muslims, but they chose Luton. It was a very provocative act. Luton's Muslims are not radical but they do feel strongly about the war in Iraq. So why shit on their doorsteps and antagonise them like that?"

Their view was not shared, however, among many of those who were shopping in the town's central mall yesterday. Sarah White, 38, said she was "disgusted" by the protest and felt that the police should never have allowed it to go ahead. "I don't care how strongly you feel about the war in Iraq, a homecoming parade is not the time to air your views. Many of those lads probably lost fellow soldiers out there."

Her comments were echoed by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who said he was disappointed that "a tiny minority tried, but ultimately failed, to disrupt [the] event". He added: "We should all be proud of the outstanding work our armed forces do."

According to Bedfordshire Police, the group that applied for permission to stage the protest was Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, believed to be an offshoot of Al Muhajiroun. Roughly translated, the name means "the majority of Muslims" – but is thought to be little more than 40 to 50 activists.

Much of the literature Abu Shadeed and Abu Omar were handing out yesterday was of the provocative type favoured by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Ahlus Sunnah wal Junnah. One leaflet spoke in favour of imposing sharia law in Britain and installing the caliphate.

The Royal Anglians marched through Watford yesterday to cheers from the thousands of supporters who turned out to welcome them home. This time there was no trouble.

But, in Luton, as well as marring what should have been a triumphant homecoming for Britain's troops, the protests will no doubt have done little to ease community tensions in a town which remains racially separated. Abu Omar was unapologetic. "There was also nothing illegal about our signs or chants. They broke no laws," he said.

Asked whether he thought their demonstration would increase community tensions, he replied: "Our protest was not against the people of Luton, it was against soldiers who voluntarily go fight in an illegal war and kill Muslims. If tensions are stirred up it will not be our fault."