LUTON, England (Reuters) - Shouting taunts and trading expletives, a Muslim teenager and the leader of Britain’s most prominent anti-Islam nationalist group are seconds from a fight.
“Why are you talking to this racist?” the youth asks a reporter walking with English Defence League leader Stephen Lennon in Luton, the British town cited as “war zone” with Islam by Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik at his trial.
As a group of Muslim youngsters surrounds Lennon, another starts a heated discussion with him about Islamic religious law.
Onlookers, fearful of trouble, peer out from down-at-heel shops in this small city in rural Bedfordshire, 35 miles (55 km) north of London, where the industries that once drew in large numbers of Asian immigrant workers have seen better days.
The goading turns out to be bluster and Lennon leaves, unscathed but with abuse ringing in his ears. “This is what I’ve been telling you about,” he said as he walked off, arguing there were parts of Luton where non-Muslims could no longer venture.
Breivik, justifying killing 77 people as part of a war to halt a Muslim takeover in Europe, has cited Luton, which he does not appear to have visited despite travelling to London some years ago, as a place of strife, fear and “Muslim no-go areas”.
“Look at places like Luton, or other war-like zones in Europe,” he said during his trial in Oslo last week. “Other militants and I in Europe are trying to prevent a civil war in Europe which would cause many more deaths.”
While Lennon, who founded the EDL in the town three years ago, has been at pains to distance himself from the confessed killer - he called Breivik a “nutter” - he does recognise his description of Luton, even if others in the city do not.
“Luton is a blueprint for every other town in the country if people don’t wake up,” said the 29-year-old Lennon, who also calls himself Tommy Robinson, the name of a once feared leader of hooligan followers of the local soccer team Luton Town.
“People are just fed up,” he said, warning that an attack similar to the Breivik killings in Britain was becoming likely.
The town is certainly one of the most ethnically diverse in Europe: Muslims, mostly from families who arrived from formerly British-ruled Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1960s and 70s, account for almost one in five of its 200,000-odd population. In Britain as a whole, about one person in 25 is Muslim.
Luton is also, some locals say, a particularly divided town, where suspicion of British Muslims, especially since the London suicide bombings of 2005 by homegrown militants, is sharpened by the presence of both radical Islamists and hard-right groups.
Taymour Abdulwahab, who carried out a suicide attack in Stockholm in December 2010, studied at the local university. A firebrand proponent of imposing Islamic law in Britain and a sympathiser with al Qaeda, Saiful Islam, lives in the town.
And it was the shouting of abuse by local Muslims at British soldiers parading in Luton after combat in Afghanistan that prompted Lennon to found the EDL in the town in 2009.
Some in Luton complain mainstream politicians have played into the hands of extremists on both sides by ignoring popular concerns, widespread over the past half-century that mass immigration, notably from former colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, is undermining British culture.
Local people are divided on how divided they actually are. Some dismiss Breivik’s rants and speak with pride of enjoying the variety of life now on offer in a town that was once known mainly as the centre of Britain’s hat-making trade. But others warn Luton could explode if politicians ignore their concerns.
The EDL, whose symbol is the national red cross of Saint George, familiar from the mediaeval Crusades and among English soccer fans, began by opposing only violent Islamism, Lennon said. But it is now anti-Islam in general - a shift to a more radical stance that worries governments across Europe.
The EDL’s support, restricted to street demonstrations and absent from the electoral process, is estimated by its leaders to be in the tens of thousands, by others to be much lower.
But with Europe’s economic difficulties adding to discontent with immigration, its brand of ideas is gaining ground. In France, a record surge to 18 percent of the vote for National Front leader Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s presidential election has prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to stress populist, nationalist themes as he tries to win over her supporters.
In Britain, anti-immigrant groups have had little such impact. Since a leading Conservative saw his career ended in the late 1960s by campaigning to halt immigration - Enoch Powell had warned of “rivers of blood” - mainstream parties have stuck to a consensus that Britain should be a multicultural society.
However, with the British National Party nearly trebling its vote - to 2 percent - at the 2010 general election, and with concerns about radical Islamists finding a haven in some British Muslim communities, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron spoke last year of the failure of state multiculturalism. He pledged to fight extremism and promote social integration.
With anti-immigrant parties also doing well in smaller European countries, notably the Netherlands, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, has voiced despair at “multiculturalism”.
The English Defence League, whose Latin motto is the widely used Christian declaration “in hoc signo vinces” - “under this sign shall you conquer” - is known in Britain for occasional brushes with anti-fascists, Muslims - and the police - on the streets. It gained international attention when Breivik referred to it admiringly in a manifesto he posted on the Internet.
Lennon calls Breivik’s massacre last July disgusting. But he does agree with the Norwegian’s analysis of Luton as a war zone of a kind that European leaders are ignoring at their peril:
“For us, the future is terrifying,” said Lennon, warning of a backlash against Britain’s small Muslim minority. “There’s 97 percent that are non-Muslim in this country and when it turns, which eventually it will, it’s not going to be good.”
Though small in stature he looks capable of defending himself - and he has a conviction for his involvement in a brawl at a Luton Town match. But, he says, he scarcely dares go to parts of the city, like Bury Park, which are mainly Muslim:
“The police are fearful of Bury Park,” said Lennon. “I don’t know any white people who go down there after dark.”
On the working-class Farley Hill estate where he was confronted by the Muslim youths, Lennon’s views resonate with some locals who say relations between Luton’s communities are terrible and getting worse, whether they be Asian Muslims, West Indians or the latest arrivals from eastern Europe.
“It’s the Asians against the whites and Polish and the blacks. It’s just abuse, abuse,” said one woman, sitting outside a cafe in a rundown parade of shops.
“You have got to watch your back wherever you go,” chimed in her friend, who said her daughter had been stabbed by a Muslim and her nephew was being bullied by Asians at a local school.
The women declined to give their names. One said: “If my name gets mentioned, my door will be burned down.”
She owned three dogs for protection, the 38-year-old added: “The police don’t even come up.”
And yet others in Luton say the talk of tension is overblown. They reject both Breivik’s view and Lennon’s analysis, saying the town is friendly and most people get along.
“To put it blunt, it’s a lot of bollocks,” snorted Ivor Herbert, sitting on a bench outside a busy, modern shopping mall where women in hijab headscarves and men in traditional Muslim robes are prominent among the crowds.
The retired truck driver has lived in Luton since 1952 and sees no widespread enthusiasm for the EDL or its agenda.
“I do most of my fruit and veg shopping in Bury Park where it’s supposed to be a no-go area and they couldn’t be more friendly,” said Herbert, 69, who wore a Luton Town tracksuit.
Clive Robinson, 30, out with his partner Sara Calcutt and pushing his baby daughter in a pram, said he had lived in Muslim areas of the city without problems: “What a load of trash,” he said of Breivik’s claims of imminent religious and race war.
“I know Luton has got a wide ethnic community and every race you can imagine is here,” he said. “But I can’t see it being any sort of issue.”
That said, he added, the EDL’s Lennon “had a point to an extent”, in that the various groups remained largely separate from each other. A sense of “us and them” was echoed by Robinson’s partner Calcutt, 30: “If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you,” she said.
“There’s no problem if they work and they pay their taxes.”
Many suggest Luton’s problems are limited to a small number at the fringes, with Lennon and the EDL on one side and local radical Islamists such as Saiful Islam, widely spurned by the majority of Muslims, on the other.
“There are real tensions like you’d find in most multicultural cities,” said Gavin Shuker, a member of parliament for the town from the centre-left opposition Labour party.
“There’s a small group of extremists within the Muslim community. There’s a small group of extremists within the more general white population,” said Shuker, 30, who grew up in Luton and counts both Lennon and Saiful Islam as his contemporaries.
He warned that advertising Luton as a haven for radicals could attract more troublesome figures. And he acknowledged the problems were also being exacerbated by the town’s economic troubles; General Motors stopped making cars nine years ago at the Vauxhall factory, which was once a mainstay for employment.
Shuker, whose father worked at Vauxhall, said: “My fear is, without responding to the social needs of the town, different communities become more segmented geographically and that can only go in one direction, which is worse when it comes to people’s attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism.”
In Bury Park, where young boys and women dressed in the loose clothing of Pakistan were scurrying for shelter from the rain, many people agreed with Shuker’s assessment.
“When an area’s slightly deprived you are going to get problems with crime and drugs,” said Saqib Ali, 25, who works in a newsagents shop.
But he rejected the neighbourhood’s portrayal as a Muslim ghetto, pointing out there were four churches in Bury Park. And he said Lennon’s English Defence League was simply creating tensions in the town where none existed.
“The only problems come along when the EDL come about and a few youngsters get a bit excited,” he said, ridiculing the group’s supporters as the kind of young Englishmen who a decade or two ago might have found an outlet for violence at soccer grounds but who now found that avenue closed by tight policing.
“What they used to do at football matches they can’t do any more,” said Ali. “So they funnel it onto the streets.”
Luton will be back in the headlines again on Saturday, May 5, when Lennon hopes the EDL will attract thousands to its biggest ever march. The police will be ready for trouble between them and local Muslims tired of radicals from both sides.
“He needs to get a slap,” said one Muslim teenager among the group who taunted Lennon, adding with a wide grin: “And so does Saiful Islam.”
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alastair Macdonald