LUTON, England —When Donald Trump raised the specter of Muslim-dominated no-go zones in London, Britons from the prime minister on down responded with indignation.
But Stephen Lennon nodded in agreement. There is one such area in his own home town, he says.
Driving through Luton’s Bury Park neighborhood one recent day, the 33-year-old with piercing blue eyes scornfully scanned the halal butchers, the women in hijabs, the skyline sprinkled with minarets, and insisted that if he were to try to walk through the Muslim-majority area, “I wouldn’t get out.”
“This is Islamabad,” he said, flashing a faint smile full of fake teeth, the real ones having been kicked out in a prison fight. Bury Park, he said, is not safe for “young white lads.”
Lennon, however, is no ordinary young white lad: Under the alias Tommy Robinson, he’s the driving force behind a national movement that seeks to ban Muslim immigration to Britain and advocates tearing down many of the country’s mosques. Community leaders say that as much as anyone, Lennon is responsible for stoking interfaith tensions in a town that has become synonymous in Britain with extremism — both Islamist and Islamophobic.
Residents insist that that reputation is deeply unfair. But as a storm of polarization and animus rages across the continent, Luton is likely to become a test case for which vision of Europe wins out: a cohesive multiculturalism that embraces people of different faiths, however messily, or a civilizational clash that leaves no room for Muslim and non-Muslim coexistence.
Leaders of all faiths in Luton say that they are fighting for the former and that the divide is less between the religions than it is between the extremists and the rest.
“We won’t allow what’s happening around the world to turn us toward attacking one another,” said Lloyd Denny, the silver-goateed pastor of a small Pentecostal church in the heart of Bury Park.
Denny said that the town had been resilient in the face of extremist challenges and that Muslims and Christians are far more likely to cooperate in stocking the local food bank than they are to attack each other for their beliefs.
But as Islamic State terrorists strike European cities, and as incidents such as the mass sexual assault in the German city of Cologne spark fears that an unparalleled refugee influx is an invasion by another name, there are questions about whether Luton can continue to hang together.
Thirty miles north of London, Luton is one of a handful of communities in Britain where there is no ethnic majority. The town of 200,000, with roots dating to pre-Roman times, has been continually reshaped over the past century by waves of immigrants: Irish, Caribbean, South Asian and Eastern European. Today, about a quarter of the population is Muslim, the community concentrated in Bury Park, a lively and low-slung area of small rowhouses and modest storefronts.
Walking along the neighborhood’s main drag, where many shop names are stenciled in Urdu, Denny, a Jamaican native, called suggestions that Bury Park is a no-go zone for non-Muslims “pathetic.”
That has not prevented the no-go label from becoming an oft-repeated slur against a town that is known to most people outside of Britain for its international airport but that is ridiculed within the country for its post-industrial poverty, its drab architecture and its tendency to attract people who preach hatred.
Luton has long been a base for the outlawed radical Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. Although the number of adherents in town is believed to be no more than 20, they have often played prominent roles. Two Luton men were recently convicted of distributing Islamic State pamphlets on a central London shopping street. Others have slipped away to fight in Syria.
Those who remain are shunned by the town’s Islamic establishment. “We’re the enemies to them as well. We’re the puppets of the regime. We’re the liberals. We’re the hypocrites,” said Tanvir Munir, general secretary of the Luton Central Mosque, a handsome brick building in Bury Park.
Munir said members of al-Muhajiroun occasionally try to use the mosque as a backdrop for their media stunts, prompting worshipers to call the police. Otherwise, he said, extremists steer clear of Luton’s mosques.
But Lennon makes no distinction between peaceful and violent expressions of Islamic faith. He instead portrays himself as a bulwark against the extremism that he says is inherent in all Islam.
To locals, Lennon is simply Stephen, a working-class product of the housing project that straddles a grassy hill above Bury Park. But to everyone else, he’s Tommy Robinson, the pseudonym he gave himself as the balaclava-wearing founder of the English Defense League. The group, until 2013, was the “main anti-Islamist street protest movement in the world,” according to the anti-extremist research group Hope Not Hate. And Luton was long a favorite venue for the group’s rowdy demonstrations.
After the brawling and bullying, the EDL fell apart, and Lennon fell from the spotlight while serving another in a series of prison sentences, this one for mortgage fraud. But now, he senses an opportunity for a comeback and plans a renewed anti-Muslim push that he says will reach beyond the fringe hooliganism of the EDL and become a mainstream British movement.
“Islam is the biggest threat we face,” said Lennon, the sides of his head shaved tight in the style of a soldier. “We should first and foremost be protecting European people, European culture and European identity, which are being eroded and downgraded.”
Lennon’s new group is called Pegida UK, representing the British outgrowth of an organization that has gathered a substantial following in Germany and is trying to spread its reach across Europe amid a continent-wide backlash against refugees.
Affiliates across Europe plan to rally Saturday. Lennon’s group plans to rally in Birmingham, a city with a substantial Muslim population that, like Luton, has been tagged with the no-go label by far-right groups. But unlike the EDL rallies of old, which were often dominated by drunken, shirtless young men hurling anti-Muslim invective, Lennon said the Birmingham event will be “a silent march” where families will be welcome.
“That’s why it’s even worse than the EDL. It’s trying to be the norm,” said Darren Carroll, 50, a professional decorator and lifelong Lutonian.
Carroll knows the EDL well: He is a former member. He also knows Lennon: Carroll is his uncle.
Carroll said the EDL was born out of the frustrations of young white men in Luton who came of age in a poor town where employment prospects were grim, crime was rife and local leadership was lacking. They blamed Muslims for their troubles. But Carroll said he now sees that that was a mistake.
“Non-Muslim lads have their football. Muslim lads have their religion,” said Carroll, who shares his nephew’s bright blue eyes. “But we’re all Luton lads growing up with the same problems.”
Carroll said he ultimately decided to leave the EDL when he heard his mother’s voice telling him he was on the wrong path. “I looked at the people I was demonstrating with and said, ‘You’ve got hate in your eyes,’ ” he said.
Carroll’s new path involves talking with local Muslims about shared concerns, as he did one recent day with Rehana Faisal, a hijab-wearing mother of six who works with the town’s two councils of mosques.
Faisal said the town’s reputation for extremism has little to do with the reality of daily life in Luton, which she described as a caring and cohesive community. She said she doubts that even Lennon believes some of his own rhetoric; when not in front of the cameras, she said, he is known for being cordial with his Muslim neighbors.
“I think Stephen has grown a bit enchanted with what Tommy has become,” she said.
The presence of a foil — the extremists of al-Muhajiroun — also has helped to raise tensions. The two extremes may appear to be mortal enemies, she said, but in reality they reinforce each other.
“It’s a reciprocal arrangement. On a local level, al-Muhajiroun and Tommy Robinson could not have survived without one another,” Faisal said. “If one stood down, the other would have nothing to fight for.”
But because both continue to be vocal, the rest of the community has had to struggle to prevent them from defining Luton and dividing the town along ethnic and religious lines. It is a challenge that no one here thinks will end quickly or easily.
“We’ve got two options,” said Peter Adams, who leads interfaith efforts at St. Mary’s, the 12th-century church in Luton’s town center. “Kill each other and divide. Or get to know each other and learn to become friends.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.