English Defence League protests are attracting an increasing number of young people.Up to 7,000 due in Luton for English Defence League rally, as anti-racist and Muslim groups prepare counter-demonstrations
Photograph: KeystoneUSA-Zuma/Rex Features
Photograph: KeystoneUSA-Zuma/Rex Features
Far-right activists from across Europe will join thousands of English Defence League supporters tomorrow for the biggest rally in the group's 20-month history. Police expect up to 7,000 demonstrators will descend on Luton, the Bedfordshire town where the EDL started in spring 2009, amid evidence of the group's growing influence among young people. The organisation has staged more than 30 protests since it was formed, many of which have been marred by Islamophobia, racism and violence.
This rally will see more than more than 25 coaches transport members to Luton from across the UK, with thousands more activists due to make their way by car or train. One EDL activist said 800 far-right supporters would be meeting at Kings Cross train station in London before travelling north. UK-based members will be joined by activists from recently formed copycat "defence leagues" in Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands – as well as supporters of more established far-right groups from France, Germany and Denmark.
Nick Lowles, from the anti-racist campaign group Hope not Hate, said the presence of these groups underlined the EDL's growing international links.
"The significance of the EDL marching in Luton extends way beyond our shores," said Lowles. "Across Europe and in North America anti-Islamic groups are watching the EDL with interest, increasingly copying their tactics, even replicating their name. The attendance of so many international supporters is testament to the EDL's role in the international anti-Islam movement."
There is widespread fear of disorder during the rally and the Bedfordshire police force is planning its biggest operation, with 2,000 officers on duty and hundreds more on standby. It is expected to cost more than £800,000.
The demonstration comes amid concern that the EDL is attracting young people into extreme racist, nationalist and Islamophobic politics. The group now has 70,000 followers on its Facebook site.
Luton youth worker Mohsin Malik, who works with young people up to the age of 18, said he could detect the group's influence in the town.
"No one comes out and says 'I'm an EDL member' but the telltale signs are there," he said. "It comes out in the arguments that they make – the idea that social minorities get priority in social housing, that the police are scared to stop and search Asians."
Malik said the group was specifically targeting teenagers and young people.
"For some of the young people I work with the EDL are very appealing – people like street cred. When you're young you want people to respect you and this is one way of gaining respect. There are some kids who are being manipulated – they think they're the big guns."
Sam Adofo, the director of the Salmon youth centre in Southwark, south London, echoed this view.
"People who say the EDL are stupid are naive ... The way they are targeting youth now is extremely strategic, and it's working for them. They've tried to be inclusive and add young people to the whole idea of what it is … The techniques they are using are the basics – interacting with the working class, meeting in the pub, watching the games. It gives young people a sense of belonging that is key."
Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, called on politicians to take the EDL threat seriously.
"The government really needs to find out why young people in particular are turning to the far right for answers," he said. "Whether it is because of the recession and unemployment, social problems within their community or a general disillusionment with politics, we cannot afford to lose people to a group that is so prejudiced against the idea of a multicultural Britain."
Anti-racism campaigners are holding a counter-demonstration in a separate part of Luton. Unite Against Fascism, which is organising the event, says it expects thousands of supporters to travel from across the country. A separate event is being organised by sections of Luton's Muslim community.
The town 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 Stockholm before killing himself with a second device, had spent time in the town. But community leaders claim it is being unfairly stigmatised and warn that the EDL is increasing tensions in the town.
"This group is having a severe impact on the people of Luton," said Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters who co-authored a report on the EDL last year. "The tensions between communities are rising and fractures are starting to appear. The Muslim community is under real pressure and feels it is being persecuted and becoming the main target for the EDL."
The far-right group was formed after a small number of protesters from an extremist Muslim group held up placards at the homecoming of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton, reading "Butchers of Basra" and "Anglian soldiers go to hell". At a subsequent protest scores of EDL supporters attacked Asian businesses, smashed cars and threatened passersby.
The group has "divisions" across the country and its leadership insists it is not violent or racist, opposed only to what it describes as radical or militant Islam. However, many of its demonstrations have descended into violence and racist chanting. Some of its supporters are extreme far-right activists and football hooligans.