LUTON, England -- It’s a video that depicts just the sort of civilizational clash that extremists everywhere crave: Christians walking down a central shopping street in Britain. Muslim storekeepers and passerby hurling verbal abuse. A push. More abuse from both sides. And finally, police intervening to keep the warring clans apart.
The video, a slick propaganda job by the virulently anti-Muslim group Britain First, became a viral hit when the organization posted it to its Facebook page, racking up millions of views.
But there was more to the story than what the video showed.
The video was filmed on Jan. 23 in the multicultural British town of Luton, 30 miles north of London. The town, a former industrial powerhouse that is today known for its budget-flight-focused airport, has become a magnet for both Islamist and Islamophobic extremists. It’s often the canvas upon which hate groups unfurl their provocative displays.
And so it was when Britain First came to town for the fourth time in two years for what it termed a “Christian Patrol.”
The group -- a far-right rival of the homegrown English Defense League -- specializes in anti-Muslim street theater, while dressing itself in the garb of a devoutly Christian organization. Members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms, and march with oversized crosses through Muslim-majority areas, or even through mosques.
Although the demonstrations are small, the group has won “huge support on social media and has created a climate of fear amongst Muslim communities,” according to the anti-extremist organization Hope not Hate.
In the video, about 20 Britain First members set out to walk through Luton’s Bury Park, the heart of the town’s South Asian community.
“This is a British town, and we are proud to be British,” says Jayda Fransen, one of the group’s leaders, as they begin their march through a low-slung commercial area marked by halal butchers, hijab shops and travel agencies specializing in flights to Pakistan.
The scenes are overlaid with ominous, martial music, and it doesn’t take long for the inevitable fireworks to erupt.
“This is our country!” a South Asian shopkeeper yells at the passing band of activists.
“It’s a Christian country!” Fransen shoots back.
“You’re jealous that we’re taking over,” the shopkeeper replies as another man tries to restrain him.
More yelling ensues. Residents curse the Britain First demonstrators, threaten them and, at one point, even shove them. A demonstrator calls out for Muslims “to reject the false prophet, Mohammed.” The police ultimately have to step in to keep the situation from escalating.
At the end, Fransen reports that her group has been subjected to “an enormous amount of hostility from the local Muslims.”
But missing from the video is what residents say was the provocation and harassment by the Britain First demonstrators before locals responded. One woman, dressed in a black hijab, said she and her children were surrounded by protesters who shouted at her, demanding to know why she wore the veil.
Also missing was the fact that 14 Christian leaders in Luton had written to Britain First telling the group to stay away.
“As Christians we are committed to share our faith, but we’re also called to love our neighbor, and live at peace with them,” the church leaders wrote. “Britain First seems to have a very different approach.”
And there’s no mention in the video of what happened the day after Britain First’s demonstration: Some 25 Muslim and Christian leaders gathered in the center of Bury Park to denounce Britain First’s actions, and to distribute flowers. They were welcomed warmly, and thanked for coming.
The Christians also handed out a statement expressing “deep regret” for what had happened the previous day.
“Today we want to stand with you as friends, neighbors and fellow Lutonians,” said Peter Adams, one of the church leaders, as he read from the statement. “We want to stand together with you in opposing all extremism that seeks to divide us. May peace be with you. Salaam alaikum.”