‘Luton men found guilty of terrorism offences’, was the recent headline in one newspaper as two men from the town were found guilty of attempting to recruit individuals to join ISIS, writes Basit Mahmood.
I’ve lived in Luton all my life, a diverse town with people from many backgrounds calling it their home. After my initial horror that someone from my home town was recruiting for a barbaric death cult, I also found myself worrying about how this would embolden another group of extremists who are no strangers to the town, the British far right. It did just that, and within a matter of days on a Saturday afternoon, I saw film footage shared by friends on social media of a group of a dozen Britain First members carrying crucifixes, charging through the town, claiming they were ‘here to take our country back’.
I find it no coincidence that Luton has acted as the birthplace for both Anjem Choudhry’s various fronts as well as groups like the EDL. Having witnessed the rise of both groups, I’ve come to discover that both extremes feed off each other and rely on capitalising on one another’s strengths in order to reinforce themselves.
I don’t have to venture too far back in Luton to discover how one discourse of extremist politics inflames another. The establishment of the EDL on the 27th June 2009 is a perfect example of this: the spark for the formation of the group came from an earlier event, an Islamist protest against the homecoming march of the Anglian Regiment from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in March 2009. This set off a chain of events that eventually led to the birth of the group. What has always struck me is how the two groups have needed each other in order to legitimise their existence.
Watching the attempts of both groups to polarise communities and gain as much possible support for their cause, it occurred to me that the crucial means through which they tried to achieve this was by appealing to the vulnerability of their target communities’ identity.
I remember how the now banned Al Muhajiroun would spend time on Friday’s chatting to students outside my sixth form college, couching their arguments not in political terms, but instead through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. They would talk of Muslims being persecuted and demonised by the West, highlighting that it was their duty to rise up to the challenge. The far right was used as an example, whether the BNP or the EDL: they were quick to point out that ‘they want to ban our minarets’, ‘strip our women of burkas’ and ‘stop us from building mosques – they hate us because of who we are’. All this was portrayed as part of a wider campaign against Muslims.
The arguments and actions of the Islamist extremists served to increase the perceived cultural challenges to those on the far right, who sought to equally present themselves as victims. I remember EDL rallies passing through the town, with placards and slogans claiming there was an onslaught on the British way of life from those who wished to impose sharia law and build more mosques, with one banner even urging patriots to ‘save our women’. I was struck how both groups have come to use the vulnerability of what they see as ‘their women’ as rallying calls towards the communities they seek to gain support from.
It became clear to me that both Islamist extremists and the far right tried to offer a sense of purpose, especially to young men from their target communities. They promised a sense of community, traditional identity, and security in an increasingly complex world, seeking to act as vanguard movements by empowering those who felt oppressed. The stronger one group became, the stronger the arguments of the other.
Don’t get me wrong; of course differences do indeed exist between the groups. However by better understanding the causes that allow such groups to legitimize and reinforce themselves, I’ve come to recognise the importance of offering a sense of belonging through an inclusive British identity, as a way to depolarise such extremes and guard against extremism.
Basit Mahmood works for a public policy research and events company based in the UK. Prior to this he has also worked as a researcher for an academy chain, focusing on how to improve social mobility. Basit studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He has lived in Luton his whole life.