Later that day, after the soldiers’ parade had dispersed, Kier was walking across St George’s Square in his England shirt — “Eng-er-land! Eng-er-land! Eng-er-land!” the crowd had been chanting at the protesters. Kier was still feeling wound up by what he had just witnessed back by the Arndale. He had a cousin in the army, a family friend who had been killed in action. ****** Muslim extremists, Kier was thinking to himself. How dare they!
Then he saw the mayor crossing the square, walking high and proud in his robe and chains. He was Asian. So far as Kier was concerned, he was a Muslim too, and it was all his fault. He was the head of the council; the council had given permission for the extremists to make their protest. F*** it, Kier thought. Kier ran up to him and fly-kicked him in the back. Councillor Lakhbir Singh, the mayor of Luton, a Sikh by faith, not in fact a Muslim at all, stumbled and fell forward, putting out his hands to stop himself falling. Kier turned around and, before the police could do anything, he ran through them and was away.
It would be farcical if it were not so sad and unpleasant, that brief moment in the life of modern, multicultural Britain. A Sikh in a turban had been mistaken for a Muslim by a white youth too ignorant to know any better, and apparently too angry to express himself other than with a kick.
The incident had been caught on camera, but it took the police a while to catch up with Kier. He was finally arrested six weeks later, outside Luton Town Football Club, which is slap bang in the middle of Bury Park, the predominantly Muslim area of the town. Kier McElroy, a white youth aged 18, had been attending a reserves match against Peterborough United.
In the weeks preceding Kier’s arrest, for some unexplained reason, the assault on the mayor was kept a secret and the mayor himself kept under wraps. He would not talk to me for this article, and I only found out about the attack through a contact in the town after Kier had been charged.
“It’s political correctness, innit,” Kier told me, after being released from custody. “We feel we’re being treated differently. They won’t nick the Asian lads, will they?” “We”, of course, were the white lads. Luton has been sharply divided along racial lines by recent events. Many of the town’s white youth are restless and incensed, and those other extremists, of the far right — the National Front (NF) and the British National Party (BNP) — are circling like vultures. Not for the first time, many of the town’s 30,000 or more Muslims are fearful of the backlash provoked, as they would see it, by the actions of the few Islamic extremists, or “troublemakers”, as I often heard them called.
Rumour and suspicion are increasing the unease. I heard of a white mob getting ready to storm the town hall, believing it had been taken over by councillors who might be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda; there was supposedly a campaign by Muslim extremists to intimidate black and white people out of their homes in Bury Park (this, in fact, turned out to be a succession of stone-throwing incidents by a lone Pakistani youth with a psychiatric illness). A series of protest marches were planned and abandoned, or fizzled out amid claims some organisers were running scared.
Among the would-be march organisers was a white man called Paul Ray who didn’t even live in Luton. He runs Lionheart, a blog in which he appears to believe he is re-fighting the medieval crusades, the good Christian against the Muslim hordes. He’s currently bailed on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. A man who had no shame about giving his name and address wrote to the local paper, The Luton News, asking, rhetorically, what he was going to do about Muslims demonstrating and attacking “our troops”. His donation to the BNP, he told readers, was in the post. Meanwhile, the NF and the BNP had added images of the Luton extremists to their websites. “Those pictures will add 2% to our vote in the next election,” I was told by the BNP spokesman Simon Darby.
Everyone was blaming everyone else. The whites blamed the authorities for letting it happen and the police for not doing anything about it — why didn’t they arrest them? The moderate Muslims blamed the extremists, the extremists blamed the moderate Muslims for not having the courage of their convictions; the authorities blamed the media for its inflammatory coverage of the parade and the intemperate language it tended to use when writing about Muslims.
Many people, especially outsiders, believed the trouble had started with the soldiers’ parade on March 10, and it was true that the events of that day had been widely reported across the world and drawn a new round of negative attention to a town that had long struggled with its public image. Whoever went to Luton unless they lived or worked there or were flying out from the airport?
But, of course, the rest of the world knew little of the long, slow-simmering tensions in the town and its struggle for harmony — community cohesion, in the jargon of the age — over many years, during which its mix of race and culture has become increasingly diverse. It’s a story of our times — the struggle for all of us, with our varieties of races and religions, to accept our differences and live peacefully together, and the tricky balance of competing freedoms of expression: the freedom to march, the freedom to protest, the right to be free from religious or racial hatred or harassment. “I’m not a racist, but…” one middle- aged white man in Luton told me, “…if they don’t like it here, why don’t they **** off home?”
Luton is one of those places that has long attracted new communities from across seas and borders. In the past there were ready opportunities for skilled and unskilled labour, and plenty of housing on the numerous council estates. It was once famous for making hats, but for a century, from around 1905, it developed as a hub for car production, centred around the Vauxhall Motors plant. The factory employed over 30,000 people at its peak but stopped making cars in 2002. The town has since been in steady economic decline. In the early days after the war, it was Irish and Scottish workers who flooded into the town. Then came the economic migrants from the Caribbean, predominantly Jamaican, followed in greater numbers by Asians, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and, most recently, by eastern Europeans, notably from Poland. Most of these new communities settled initially in Bury Park and moved on as and when they could. But it is the Asians, especially the Muslims, who have made Bury Park their own, and turned it into a vibrant, dynamic outpost of south Asia. In a town of 184,000 people, around 35,000 are of south-Asian origin, and just under 30,000 are Muslim.
I don’t imagine the British Army ever questioned its right to celebrate its soldiers’ homecoming from Iraq with a series of triumphant parades in suburban centres around the country. The 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, though based in Germany, had recruited in and around Luton over many years, and no doubt the army had in mind a mixture of pride and propaganda when it invited people to turn out on Tuesday March 10, and line the streets to welcome the regiment, known as the Poachers, home from Iraq after its second six-month tour in two years.
The soldiers wore their freshly laundered and pressed desert khakis and carried rifles with fixed bayonets, which they were entitled to do because the regiment had been granted the freedom of the town. As the soldiers assembled to set off in Park Street West, around 12.30pm, a rival assembly was being inspected nearby. Bedfordshire police know the group of Muslim extremists who protested against the soldiers by the name of Call to Submission. The protesters themselves laughed when I told them this was the name the police gave them, but when I invited Sayful Islam, their informal leader, to suggest an alternative word to “extremist” by which he would like to be known, he suggested “submitter”. He has submitted to Islam, like all Muslims, though not all Muslims have submitted themselves completely enough for Sayful. He would like all of us, not just Muslims, to submit to Islam and sharia law, though he would argue that this does not mean going around stoning adulterers and chopping off the hands of thieves. Those are very rare events, according to Sayful. He still considers himself part of the group Al-Muhajiroun, whose founder, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, is in Lebanon facing a death sentence after being convicted of training terrorists for Al-Qaeda. Bakri was banned from the UK in 2005 after long years in which he had praised acts of terror and encouraged others to commit them. He has also expressed his opposition to the killing of innocent people, and has sometimes argued that his words were just rhetoric and not meant to be taken literally. The authorities
certainly believed Al-Muhajiroun had played its part in radicalising some young Muslims and turning them towards terrorism. In October 2001, it was being reported that three young men from Luton, recruits of Al-Muhajiroun, had been killed fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. That story has been repeated many times since, without ever being properly sourced. According to Sayful, two of those young men are still walking around Luton now and the third died in circumstances that may have had nothing to do with fighting.
Al-Muhajiroun disbanded in 2004, just before it was banned, but Bakri’s supporters, including those in Luton, continue to follow him as part of the Islamic sect Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah. This group broadly supports the same values as Al-Muhajiroun, believing democracy is un-Islamic and a hindrance to the desired Islamic state and sharia. These are Sunni Muslims, whose interpretation of their faith can be strict and inflexible and at odds with anyone who thinks differently.
Sayful’s group has been a familiar sight on the streets of Luton for several years. As far back as St George’s Day 2004, white opponents had occupied the group’s favourite pitch outside the Don Millers bakery in the town-centre precinct and displayed a banner — “Ban The Luton Taliban”.
The group set up a stall there most Saturday afternoons. On Tuesdays they are often outside Luton Sixth Form College. On Fridays, after Juma prayers, they are to be found on the pavement by the Rani Fashions store in Dunstable Road, in the heart of Bury Park, where they are grudgingly tolerated by the Muslim owners of the clothing, grocery and jewellery shops around them. In January 2008, they were involved in a standoff with Shi’ite Muslims taking part in their annual commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, whom Shi’ites regard as the Prophet’s true heir. Sunnis do not accept that the grandson was divinely appointed. Sayful and his group turned out with a megaphone, bellowing to the Shi’ites that they were not true Muslims. The Shi’ite men were bare-chested for their commemoration, beating themselves with their fists. This January, the Shi’ites assembled outside the mosque that many believe is the home of Sayful and his group — the Call To Islam Education Centre on Bury Park Road. Shi’ite supporters posted footage of themselves outside the centre on YouTube, along with gloating messages. The centre’s trustee, Farasat Latif, sighed when I asked about his relationship with Sayful Islam. Latif would describe himself as orthodox, but just because he dresses like the extremists doesn’t mean he is one. He was clear that his own orthodoxy would never allow for the support of terror, and in his interpretation of Islam, you were bound to live within the laws of the country and accept the democratic process, even if you did not believe in it.
Sayful was disappointed in the Call To Islam centre. They were compromisers and would never get to paradise, not unlike those Muslims he had heckled during their campaign for elections to the local council. One of the councillors had invited Sayful to his home, and after a long talk had asked him, why are you speaking so nicely here in my home when you are so strong in attacking me when we’re out on the street? Sayful had told him he would never hold back, would speak out where it was necessary and never compromise. As the teachings he believed in would say, his views were firm, but they would make him a stranger in society. That’s what he and his fellow believers were, strangers among us. Sayful had no hesitation in seeking to protest at the soldiers’ homecoming parade. He also says he knew that people would be upset by the protests and tried to have a low-key presence, out of harm’s way.
The police had agreed with the group that they would meet in the town at 12.30. The police would examine their placards and agree a place for them to stand, just away from the march past, where they would barely be noticed.
Things began to go wrong when the group did not arrive in town together, but became separated on the journey from Bury Park, so that while half of them took up the agreed position, by the Don Millers bakery, the delayed group got caught on the outside of the procession route and could not immediately be walked through to join the others. This second group were held in position by the police at the back of the town hall, at the top of Gordon Street, much closer to the march past.
Still, a journalist I spoke to who filmed along the whole route did not at first notice the protesters or capture them on film. It was only when he got down to St George’s Square — where the mayor was saying the soldiers should not be blamed for the war in Iraq — that the cameraman heard trouble and went back around the town hall to find out what was going on. According to the police, the split in the protest group had prevented them from properly examining their placards: “Anglian soldiers butchers of Basra”. “Anglian soldiers criminals, murderers, terrorists”. “Anglian soldiers go to hell”. “British government, terrorist government”. “Muslims rise against British oppression”.
Of course, half the country was against the war in Iraq, white, Asian, black, Muslims, Christians alike. But those placards, as no doubt intended, were provocative statements against the soldiers and their friends and families who had turned out to see the march. White people, young and old, male and female, who were there for the march past were incensed by the protesters’ placards and their shouting. “Anglian soldiers, baby killers!” was one call that particularly upset the soldiers and some of the several thousand people who were there to see them, though most would have been oblivious to the protests at the time. To the protesters, a regiment that had fired a total of 36,000 rounds in Iraq ought to share responsibility for the many civilian casualties — mothers and children among them — in that country. The army and its supporters would argue that the protesters should take their grievances to the government, which had promoted the war, and leave alone the soldiers, who had merely been following orders. But this was not good enough for Sayful Islam. “Would we excuse the Nazi soldiers who carried out atrocities because they were just obeying orders?”
The divisional commander of Luton, Chief Superintendent Andy Frost, would later think long and hard about the decisions taken before and during the day. Should he have banned or arrested the protesters? Well, they had turned out before with their banners and their megaphone — at the Luton Faith Walk and the Holocaust Memorial Day — and there had never been any real threat to public order. “Normally they turn up, start off their protest against the war, most people ignore them, and everyone moves on.” Next time, mind you, he might think differently.
He conceded that the police had underestimated the banners’ impact. “When some of the public decide to make their feelings known, we get into the perverse situation that we’re having to give police protection to the people who were causing the antagonism in the first place. You can see the white community thinking, this ain’t right, but we have to maintain law and order, and we can’t just let the white community have a go at them, so we’re in a real piggy in the middle on this one.”
Once the parade had passed and the angry crowd at Gordon Street had thinned, the police marched the second group of protesters down to the Don Millers bakery, where they joined the others to make one protest, even now numbering no more than 35. A far larger crowd of mostly white soldier-supporters now began to gather in front of the protesters. The police pushed the Muslims back down the Bute Street cul-de-sac at the entrance to the Arndale Centre. Sayful says, and the police agree, that he constantly asked: “Is this okay? Are you happy with what we are doing? Are we within the law?” The megaphone was a great weapon of protest, but after a while it became clear it was inciting the crowd, so the police asked the protesters to stop using it and they did.
The crowd became more incensed and ever nastier in its response. “Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land”. Or this to the tune of Ta-ra-ra- boom-de-ay: “We pay your benefits, we pay your benefits, we pay your benefits…” This seemed ironic bearing in mind everyone was gathered with nothing better to do, apparently, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. The Muslims were by now pinned back besides the Blue Arrow employment agency. “Take ’em in Blue Arrow and get ’em all a f***ing job,” someone called. An agitated woman could be seen shouting: “They’re all in their nightdresses. Go ’ome and get dressed!”
There were a couple of white people with the Muslims and one or two Asians standing among the soldier-supporters. One told the crowd: “They’re not proper Muslims, they’re just troublemaking idiots!” He was applauded. Someone got out onto the roof of the Arndale above the protesters and emptied a pack of bacon rashers over them. A highly offensive act. The police would like to prosecute whoever did that, but have been unable to identify them on CCTV footage. Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/sikh-news/25405-fear-and-hatred-on-streets-luton.html
Chief Superintendent Frost was among the dignitaries in St George’s Square when the sound of distant hollering began to filter through. He and the man beside him, the council’s chief executive, Kevin Crompton, were communicating discreetly by text, finding out what was going on and keeping each other informed. In the Menzies Strathmore hotel later, the soldiers and officers seemed untroubled by what had gone on. As they said, they had faced far worse in Basra. Frost said to the general: “Sorry about what’s gone on.” “Don’t worry about it. Not a problem,” the general replied. “The lads had a really good day and thanks to the people of Luton.”
Kevin Crompton from the council speculated that he had seen members of the far right moving among the crowd, judging from their style of dress and the prevalence of Union Jack and St George’s flags. But nobody, not even the police, seemed quite sure if they had been there or not, in any organised way. When I called him, the BNP PR Simon Darby asked me if I knew about Luton and the “Islamic problem”. He told me he had some members who were old soldiers of the Poachers regiment, and rightly said that even serving soldiers could join race-hate parties such as the BNP, as long as they did not play an active role. Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=25405
I was told by antifascists from the organisation Hope Not Hate that the BNP’s far-right rivals, the National Front, were a bunch of misfits and rabble in and around Luton, but the BNP was more of a presence, with a local councillor, Simon Deacon, in the nearby parish of Markyate. The antifascist official told me he had been astounded by the media attention devoted to the Muslim protesters. He had been on demonstrations of 100,000 people that had barely scraped a fraction of that coverage. One immediate effect of that coverage, with its tabloid focus on “vile” extremists and the “Britons who hate Britain”, was a series of vengeful incidents. One of the protesters, Jalal Ahmed, was suspended from his job as a baggage handler on easyJet flights at Luton Airport. The police told me there had been one or two cases involving bacon being sent through the post to Muslims. Farasat Latif of the Call To Islam mosque said a friend of his had been followed and attacked by a white man who had whipped him with a belt. Women he knew had been spat at and abused, apparently because they were wearing head coverings. Many Muslim women simply kept out of the town centre altogether, he said, after the parade. It had been the same after the 7/7 bombings, when a woman he knew had a brick thrown at her.
On that day, July 7, 2005, the four bombers had travelled down from Leeds, parked their car at Luton station and travelled into London by train with their bombs on their backs. They had killed 52 people, among them a middle-aged social worker, a black woman from Luton, Ojara Ikeagwu.
One protester, Yousaf Bashir, was living with his family in a cul-de-sac on an estate in Stopsley, a mainly white area of Luton. His neighbours hung out St George’s flags and bunting to remind him where he was. Then his home was attacked, the windows of two cars on the forecourt were smashed, along with two windows of the house and a glass panel in the front door. Graffiti was painted on the front wall. Some say it was just a St George’s flag. Others say it was a flag and the words “Get out”. The police put a car outside his home, but the family eventually left for their own safety.
The protesters had never been popular in Bury Park, and were further resented for their actions on March 10. Sayful Islam would not tell me where he goes to pray, simply saying he was not attached to any particular mosque. But I was told he and his group were either banned or not welcome at most, if not all, of Luton’s 15 mosques.
He smiled awkwardly when I asked if his actions and beliefs put his group in conflict with their families. “Yeah, I mean, to be honest, it would, because obviously our families, they just worry for us.” He said he had little experience of racism growing up in Luton. Normally, he said, once he was able to speak to people, they soon realised they were not just fanatics or extremists but had a point to make, and nor were they lowlifes or uneducated. Indeed, Sayful Islam sounded measured and far from fanatical throughout our conversations. It was worth remembering that representatives of Al-Muhajiroun had openly gloried in the attacks of 9/11, and were suspected of grooming young men for jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Luton had benefited from government-funded initiatives to prevent violent extremism, and Farasat Latif had run his own anti-extremism project with money from the EU.
I was suspicious when I started getting calls from a man calling himself Mikey Birch, who claimed to be one of the would-be organisers of more marches against the council and the extremists. I could not verify his identity, and he claimed he could be the target of attacks if he told me who he was and where he lived. On the other hand, much of what he told me turned out to be true.
Birch was one of the organisers of a bank-holiday Monday demonstration in the town that turned violent when a crowd of 200 of so young men, mostly white, poured out of Brookes pub into the precinct and, as the police feared, prepared to march on Bury Park. The police corralled them and there were some scuffles and minor arrests.
“ASBO Sayful Islam”, was one of the placards that day. Another was “NF go to hell”. Mikey Birch cited this as evidence that this protest had no connection to the far right. He said a handful of NF supporters had shown up and been made to leave because they were unwelcome. The trouble was that the BNP are arch rivals of the NF in the quest for white-extremist support, so “NF go to hell” could just as easily be a BNP slogan.
Birch said he had no affiliations with a far-right party, but he did say that if the BNP were in charge at the town hall, Luton would not be so biased towards Muslims. “I’m not being racist, but…”, he said, “…I don’t want my kids being Islamified. I don’t want them forcing their religion on us.”
He was concerned about the number of Muslim councillors in Luton, and thought it was wrong that the extremists had been allowed to protest when their own marches were being prevented or curtailed. “Have Al-Muhajiroun or Al-Qaeda infiltrated the council? That’s what people are saying.” It was Birch who told me that people had talked of storming the town hall in protest.
“The BNP will get a stronghold here because people feel they are the only party prepared to take on the Muslim extremists. And if the police and the council won’t fight the war against Sayful Islam, then we will fight it for them.”
On May 4 there was an arson incident at the Call To Islam mosque, where most people wrongly believe the extremists are based. Two white people were seen running away. It was midnight when it happened, so clearly there was no intention to harm anyone inside, but still, there was around £50,000 worth of damage.
By now the ordinary Muslim community of Bury Park was beginning to fear the worst and fed up with Sayful Islam and his colleagues. First Sayful and then two others in his group were “slapped around” in Bury Park. Around 200 people, mostly young Muslim men, gathered spontaneously on May 24, ready to defend themselves against nearly 500 mainly white protesters who gathered in the town centre, many of them clearly of the far right and intent on racist violence: around 100 of them wore home-made Sayful-Islam masks, complete with devil horns. According to the police, only one Asian man was the victim of a minor assault that afternoon, but Latif told me there were several more serious assaults that had gone unreported, which was why the young Muslim men had turned out, intending to stop any attempt by white protesters to “invade” Bury Park. In the end, serious confrontation was avoided and the Muslims were kept at bay by riot police, who made nine arrests among the white protesters and later charged two with minor offences. There have also been five arrests from an earlier march and three arrests from Islam’s group arising out of the original protest on March 10. None have yet led to charges.
Sayful Islam’s group were back in Bury Park two weeks ago, handing out leaflets after prayers. The Call To Islam mosque community decided to move them on, and “overwhelmed” the extremists right on the street outside Rani Fashions. The police were called, other locals gathered, some punches were thrown, the extremists dispersed, nobody was arrested or seriously hurt.
But these are still dangerous times in Luton, and there is little doubt that the backlash against the soldiers’-parade protesters has not yet run its course, and will get uglier before it gets better