Today's EDL march in Luton has put the interests of a few extremists above the wishes of the majority
Several thousand supporters of the English Defence League are marching in Luton today in protest against Islam. What began as a street movement to oppose Islamic fundamentalism has broadened its target to the religion itself. A few hundred metres away, Unite Against Fascism has arranged a counter-demonstration and, separately, a group of local Muslims will be meeting in a park to act as a buttress between the EDL and their neighbourhood. The town centre will be in lockdown, with most roads closed and 2,000 police on duty. For most local people, of all races and religions, today is viewed with dread and fear. Tensions have been building over the last week, and there is a real fear of disorder on the streets.
For the EDL, the march is being billed as coming "back where it began". The group was formed in the town in the summer of 2009 as a response to a handful of Islamic extremists who protested against an army homecoming parade. The EDL considers Luton to be the frontline. It is home to al-Muhajiroun, now known as Islam4UK, and there has been a Luton link to many recent terror plots in Britain.
Since then the EDL has gone national, with 80,000 supporters on Facebook and local groups across the country. It has held over 30 demonstrations and protests across the country, many ending in violence. The police hope they have the resources to ensure a peaceful day. I certainly hope they are right, but I also have reason to be fearful. The whole policing operation has been dogged by inconsistent mixed messages, confusion, and divisions between the police and the local council. They appear to have accepted the EDL line that by allowing the march they are reducing the risk of trouble. The residents of High Town, the mixed area of Luton where the EDL march is due to starts, were only informed of this last Sunday. No wonder the EDL themselves are openly and publicly bragging that the "tide has turned" and the police are on their its side.
The apparent willingness of the police to accommodate the EDL has had an adverse affect on many locals, including the Muslim community. Many do not trust the police to protect them, and this has bolstered calls to mobilise to defend their neighbourhoods. Compare this with the police in Bradford and Leicester, who restricted EDL demands and went out of their way to reassure target communities – and as a result reduced tensions.
I am not advocating a ban on all marches, but with freedom of speech comes responsibility. The rights of one group have to be put against the affect it has on others. Whatever the outcome, Luton is a more divided town than it was a fortnight ago. The EDL is already feeling confident enough to demand a local shopping centre withdraw plans for a multifaith prayer room or face an EDL response. The march, and the police's acceptance of the EDL's wish to gather at a pub in one of the outlying estates, further reinforces the perception that certain areas of the town belong to the EDL.
More worryingly, the EDL protest is likely to further alienate the Muslim community. Many Muslims will be more nervous; others are likely to be attracted by the extremist message peddled by Anjem Choudary and his Islam4UK group.
Shortly before Christmas, the head of the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit claimed that EDL activities pushed young Muslims into the arms of extremist groups. I have argued this for a long time. There is a symbiotic relationship between the EDL and the very groups they claim to oppose. Each needs the other to justify their own existence, and their respective memberships are boosted by the activity of the other.
Bedfordshire police are following the line set down by the government and police chiefs at the Home Office. They do not consider the EDL to be an extreme rightwing group and they view the march as simply a law-and-order issue. It is the events on the day that matter, rather than the longer-term consequences of their actions. With cuts of up to 50% in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the closing of its tension-monitoring groups, no one in the government is willing to look at the wider implications of EDL activities.
Only yesterday a building that had been earmarked for a Muslim cultural centre in north Wales was set alight, two weeks after an EDL protest was held there. Mosques in Kingston upon Thames and Stoke-on-Trent have been attacked following EDL protests. A Hindu temple was obviously mistaken for a mosque during an attack in Dudley on the day of an EDL protest.Everyone will be holding their breath that today passes off peacefully; but it seems strange that, at a time when the government advocates localism, the interests of an extremist few are put above the wishes of the majority.
Nick Lowles at Comment is free