LUTON (Reuters) - About 1,500 far-right protesters marched through the centre of Luton Saturday to rally against "militant Islam," requiring a heavy police presence to avert clashes with 1,000 anti-fascist demonstrators.
A sixth of Luton's population is Muslim, and past marches by the English Defence League have led to conflict with their opponents. The city centre turned into a virtual ghost town before the rally, with shops boarded up and pubs closed.
But police and community activists averted large-scale violence, making only eight arrests on a mix of assault, drugs and weapons charges. There were no serious injuries.
Tensions ran high as EDL leader Stephen Lennon -- who frequently adopts the name of infamous football hooligan Tommy Robinson -- told marchers to reject the influence of Islam in British public life.
"Every single one of you are on the forefront of the fight against militant Islam," he said, as supporters chanted the EDL's name and other nationalistic songs based on those more usually associated with English football games.
The EDL says it is not a racist organisation, and welcomed a speech by Prime Minister David Cameron earlier Saturday, where he told international leaders that his country had been too tolerant of British Islamists who rejected Western norms.
Groups representing some British Muslims criticised Cameron for making the speech on the same day as the EDL march, and for implying that unwillingness to accept freedom of speech and equal rights was widespread among Muslims.
"British Muslims abhor terrorism and extremism and we have worked hard to eradicate this evil from our country, but to suggest that we do not sign up to the values of tolerance, respect and freedom is deeply offensive and incorrect," said Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation.
The Unite Against Fascism group protesting against the EDL in Luton said they did not believe the EDL's claims that it was only interested in combating Islamist extremism.
"Hitler said he was a democrat before he burnt down the Reichstag. That is what fascists do -- they lie about what their nature is," said Elaine Heffernan, who attended the UAF rally.
The EDL was formed after a group of radical Muslims shouted slogans at British soldiers, calling for them to "burn in Hell," during a homecoming parade in Luton in 2009.
Luton Muslims have been implicated in a number of terrorism investigations and Taymour Abdulwahab, who carried out a suicide attack in Stockholm in December, had studied at the city's university.
However, the town's Muslim leaders have regularly denounced militancy and say a few extremists are not a reflection of the rest of the community.
(Writing by David Milliken)