Police expected to mount biggest operation in town's history as councillor says vast majority reject extremism of any kind
The far-right English Defence League is due to stage the biggest demonstration in its 18-month history this weekend amid growing fears of widespread disorder. Thousands of EDL activists from across England will descend on Luton, the Bedfordshire town where the organisation started, for the protest on Saturday.
The EDL has staged more than 30 protests in towns and cities across the UK since it was formed in March 2009, many of which have been marred by Islamophobia, racism and violence. On Saturday, between 25 and 30 coaches packed with EDL supporters are expected to travel to Luton, including a number of activists from far-right groups in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
"This event is creating more fear than anything else, especially among the elderly who have seen the pictures of what has happened at these events in the past," said Luton councillor Mahmood Hussain. "Everyone is very much concerned about what could happen because you only have to look at the record of this group to see what we face."
Bedfordshire police are planning the biggest operation in Luton's history with around 2,000 officers expected to be on duty, with several hundred more on standby.
Anti-racism campaigners are holding a counter demonstration in Luton on Saturday in separate part of the town. Unite Against Fascism, which is organising the event, says it expects supporters to travel from across the country. Community leaders and politicians have been working with different community groups in Luton since the EDL announced it was going to stage the protest under the catchline "Back to where it all began".
"We had a very emotional meeting last week where the young people were very concerned with some of the awful things that were written on the internet by EDL people," said Hussain. "But we are trying to tell them not to be provoked because that is just what these people want."
The EDL was formed in Luton after a small number of protesters from an extremist Muslim group held up placards at the homecoming of the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment reading "Butchers of Basra" and "Anglian soldiers go to hell". At a subsequent protest in the town scores of EDL supporters attacked Asian businesses, smashing cars and threatening passersby. The group has branches across the country and its leadership insists it is not violent or racist and is opposed only to what it describes as radical or militant Islam.
However, many of its demonstrations have descended into violence and racist chanting. Some supporters are known far-right activists and football hooligans.
Nick Lowles from anti-racist group HOPE not hate said: "The EDL poses the biggest threat to community cohesion in Britain today. Its activities are designed to increase tensions in communities with a large Muslim population and especially in areas that have had problems in the past. By demonstrating in these areas they embolden local racists and seek a violent reaction from local Muslim youths, which in turn will lead to a new cycle of violence."
Luton has had links to Muslim extremism in the past. In December, it emerged that Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi-born Swede who set off a car bomb in the Swedish capital before killing himself with a second bomb, had spent time in Luton.
However, Lowles said the vast majority of people in Luton rejected extremism of any kind.
"The danger is that people will get the impression that there is only extremism in this town which is simply not true. What we want to do is mobilise mainstream opinion and give them a voice to oppose the EDL and any other extremists."
Hussain agreed that the vast majority of people in Luton were opposed to the EDL's message of hate and division.
"I have been here since 1969 and we have never had any race riots or anything like that," said Hussain. "This is a truly diverse place and we won't turn our back and let the EDL destroy all that is good about it."