Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The homecoming parade

My heart sinks at the thought of the comments that will inevitably come in as a result of this post, but I feel that I should comment, albeit only briefly, on the story that has broken tonight about the trouble in Luton.

To put this into context - I was born in Luton. I only moved out a few weeks before my 40th birthday. I know the key figures within the Muslim community pretty well, through my past involvement in local politics, and still bump into some of them occasionally. Which means I can confidently say this: they would be appalled by the protests that took place today.

Luton prides itself on being a place which has coped admirably with successive waves of immigration over the past century, from the Scots and Irish (including my father's family), who came to work in the car industry, to the African-Caribbeans in the 1950s and 60s, the Asians in the 1970s, followed by Bosnians, Kosovans, Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese and various other refugees in more recent years. I'm not saying there have never been tensions, but the town has managed them. We had a fairly active National Front in the 1970s, and lots of skinheads, but eventually they were driven out of town or underground. (Some of the older Asians have some great stories about how they achieved this). There's been some BNP activity more recently, but not on the scale seen in many other towns. In fact the nearest elected BNP-er was a councillor in Broxbourne, a place not noted for its ethnic diversity.

What the town has seen in recent years, certainly since September 11th but possibly before, is a very small but very vocal group of extremists within the Muslim community, members of Al-Muhajiroun and then, after it was disbanded and its splinter groups banned, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Football fans travelling to Kenilworth Road, which is in the heart of Bury Park, the 'Asian part' of town, would perhaps have seen them on the pavements, handing out pamphlets.

The last time I spoke in a political capacity in Luton was in 2005, shortly after the 7/7 bombings and only a couple of months after I'd been elected as an MP. I spoke at an event with the Pakistan High Commissioner, the two local MPs and Lord McKenzie, who is now a DWP Minister. On the way out I was confronted by someone from HT, a young man, naive, fired-up, a little foolish, and completely unable to see mine or anyone else's viewpoint. In other words, a typical young radical, the sort who if he'd not been born Muslim would probably be found selling Socialist Worker or throwing custard at cabinet ministers. Speaking to other Muslims about HT afterwards, I found that opinion was divided, between those who thought they were just idiots and those who were concerned that, given the events of 7/7, they might just be dangerous idiots.

I can't speak with any great authority on the subject, but I know that a lot of work has gone on in Luton since then to try to prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth, as indeed it has done across the UK, under the Government's 'Prevent' agenda. Has the community become more extreme in its views? I don't think so. Admittedly, we never used to see women in burkhas when I was growing up, but I think that might be more a reflection of the different types of Muslim communities now in the town, (e.g. from Afghanistan or Iraq) rather than a change in attitudes. I think mainstream Muslim opinion is as moderate as ever. Indeed, many of the Muslims in Luton would be not just second-generation, but third generation now, and for every Muslim parent who is worried about their son or daughter becoming radical Islamists there are probably ten, twenty, a hundred, who are worried about them going off the rails in the entirely opposite direction!

I've spoken briefly about this to one of the Luton MPs tonight, and someone else in Luton. What seems clear is that it was a very small group who protested against the soldiers' parade. (You can see from the photos accompanying the Mail article - it's a handful). They were of course entirely wrong to do so, and action should be taken against anyone whose behaviour could be seen as inflammatory or an incitement to hatred.

However, some of those described by the Daily Mail as "a large number of local people, some waving Union and St George's flags" were actually BNP activists, I'm told, who had come to Luton because they knew there would be trouble. Just as the decent, law-abiding Muslim community in Luton would be appalled by the behaviour of those extremists who purport to act in the name of Islam, I would like to think that the decent, law-abiding general public in Luton would be similarly appalled by the actions of the BNP in using this homecoming event to promote their own brand of hatred.

P.S. Interesting link provided to me by Captain Fun via Twitter - local media hasn't picked up on it in same way.


Captain Fun said...

Not sure what to make of this - local press seems to be down playing it. Hadn't heard a thing locally (in Leighton Buzzard).

Have had BNP leaflets through the door in last month for first time since I left W. Yorks - didn't spot who posted it, and haven't heard - so not sure if they're local or rent-a-mob. I'll try and find out.

Bury Park is wonderful - like a mini Southall - the 24 pharmacy there is often recommended by out of hours doctors, and patients chasing a precription at 11.00 at night often get quite a culture shock

Kerry said...

My grandmother lives just up the road from there!

DaveA said...

Ironically I maybe not reverting to type here. I do support the Muslims right to demonstrate here, free speech is not an a la carte menu you can pick and choose what you believe should allowed or not. However the banning of Geert Wilders was an utter disgrace, I have seen his film Fitna and I do not consider it offensive.

However I think the protest was insensitive and coming from these stone age barbarians (look at their wives) deeply hypocritical.

I think it is a tribute to our democracy that they were allowed to protest and were protected by the police.

I must say if a few of the boys had read them their fortune I would of understood. I certainly would of popped over to point out the error of their ways and have an exchange of ideas shall we say.

Another 2% in the polls for the BNP methinks.

pagar said...

What seems clear is that it was a very small group who protested against the soldiers' parade. (You can see from the photos accompanying the Mail article - it's a handful). They were of course entirely wrong to do so, and action should be taken against anyone whose behaviour could be seen as inflammatory or an incitement to hatred.

No. No. No.

I don't agree with them but you cannot deny them the right to express their view. And nor would Old Holborn.

Captain Fun said...

There's a later video of this http://tinyurl.com/bfzsqg which is somewhat more disturbing.

Sadiq Khan MP for Tooting is talking of hate filled thugs (via Twitter) - I'm guessing he means the supposedly "muslim" protesters, but it strikes me that the chanting white skinheads in the crowd are the hate filled thugs I'm more worried about. He does say he's just getting on top of the facts - which I am too.

Just to summarise my position - I respect the protesters right to do so, but feel that their protest is insensitive, and counter productive - and generates ill feeling and possibly hatred, if not by design (which is debatable), then certainly by default. I supported the war in Iraq, but would support the troops sent there even if I hadn't. It doesn't diminish my intolerance of racism.

Many of the people "spontaneously" reacting to their protest, with offensive chanting seemed curiously very prepared for this, and I can't help thinking that this was prearranged by an extreme right wing group.

If it seems odd that two apparently opposing groups can somehow contrive to stage an "incident" together, then look back a few years to when the SWP and NF seemed to miraculously turn up both at the same time in Towns and Cities across the country.

It looked like a throwback to the late 70's to me. Horrible !

Sadly, though I can't agree with DaveA's idea of "going over to point out the error of their ways" - I feel it is likely that this may indeed lead to increased support for the BNP - but remember 2% of sod all support is still sod all support !

DaveA said...

CaptainFun can I point out in "going over to point out the error of their ways" I meant engage them in debate, I did not infer violence.

I would suspect that they are not the type of people who handle dissent well.

I suppose on a general point the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 where 168 people died, the guilty people were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. They are white Christians. Although they never attacked Muslims, if Muslims wanted criticise them with the "all Christian" tar brush, I would be the first to say not in my name and would like to see these people burn in hell. Also I would add I am deeply ashamed of white Christians with beer bellies and often England tattoos who go abroad, drink excessively and are violent and racist towards other foreigners. They are scum too.

However the silence from much of the Muslim community is deafening. I am happy to admit to my cultural failings, but it does not seem to be a reciprocal arrangement.

DaveA said...

This is what really happened at Luton.