How can a town beat the extremists?

“When you talk about the far right you inevitably find yourself talking about Luton. And when you talk about Luton you talk a man called Stephen Yaxley Lennon. You might know him better as Tommy Robinson”  So began todays BBC’s  Beyond Today Podcast as it asked the question:  ‘How can a town beat the extremists?’

“Tommy Robinson” is today a household name. Hope not Hate’s recent polling suggests 55% of the nation have seen or heard of him, with 35% having viewed one of his videos.  10 years ago in March 2009 Stephen Yaxley Lennon was a Luton lad with a bit of a reputation around town, but certainly not beyond. The exact role he played in mobilising a protest against Muslim al-Muhajiroun extremists, who were themselves protesting the homecoming parade of a local army regiment back from a tour in Iraq, is unknown, but in the wake of it he was able to mobilise a nationwide street protest movement that became known as the EDL, the English Defence League. It was in that process that Stephen became Tommy Robinson.

 Tommy still lives locally to Luton, and on a number of occasions over the past year his activity in the town has stirred problems, in part as he has live-streamed some of the events of the EDL years to his large international following. But in the main now his divisive activity is elsewhere. Yet the impact of the events on that March 2009 day have left a mark in the town. Ten years on the BBC asked its own Luton girl Georgia Coan to look at the impact of extremism on the town. Georgia was at school in next door Dunstable in 2009, now she is a BBC producer, and last week she spent a morning with me and my good friend and colleague Sufian Sadiq talking about the events of 2009, how its felt and what we have done.  She also spent time with Darren Carroll who was part of the protest on that day and on some of the early EDL protests, but who left and now works to challenge extremism.

 Georgia tells how amidst the tension growing in the town in 2009 there were people working in the town to try and calm things. That’s where I come on t scene, and tell of some of the tensions the protests revealed. Sufian went on to talk of the fear that the protests stirred, but how we have all worked to challenge the extremism, the division.

 Over the past ten years its been very easy to imagine how division could have become Luton’s story. But that isn’t our story.  Asked what Luton teaches us about how to deal with the far right, BBCs Home Affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani notes, “Luton teaches more than that, that is how to deal with extremism. That can’t be done publicly, but very quietly behind the scenes, little dialogues.” He notes how if the media go away, and the politicians as well, and let the police and local experts get involved you find little opportunities for people to meet and have dialogue and start to understand each other, that things become less black and white, less them and us, and you find ways of coming together. “That’s not sexy. Its boring hard work. But most extremism begins to be solved through those quiet dialogues,” concludes Casciani 

 Casciani’s words, and the overall editorial line of the Beyond Today programme seem to stand in contrast to the drama surrounding another BBC focus on Lennon, a Panorama investigation. Suffice it to say Luton has beaten extremism to date by focusing on the issues rather than the antics of the extremists. Sufian points to way he and others in the Muslim community started a information center, Discover Islam, so people could find out more over a cup of tea in the town centre shop rather than a mosque.   He also related in the interview (though its didn’t make the cut in the programme) how Muslims and Christians have been working together to oppose Child Sexual Exploitation, through the work of Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACES) rather than let the stories of grooming gangs in places like Rotheram and Rochdale define Muslim attitudes to sexual abuse.

 Its been a rocky journey at times over these ten years, but this Sunday as I remember the events of March 10 2009 I have a lot to be grateful for.

Peter Adams