Review: Stacey Dooley on Luton’s fanatics

Picture of the presenter, Stacey Dooley, wearing an orange dress, arguing with a woman in a black niqab during a demonstration in a street in LutonBBC Three - My Hometown Fanatics: Stacey Dooley Investigates

Stacey Dooley is presented as someone who was plucked from working as a shop assistant at a perfume counter at Luton airport to presenting an investigative programme, titled “Stacey Dooley Investigates”, for BBC Three, their digital-only youth-oriented channel. She first appeared for them in their show “Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts”, in which a group of British youths, including Dooley, went to India to live and work alongside local garment workers, but her “strong interest in the nature of third world labour laws” got her a documentary series of her own. In this show, she returned to her home town of Luton to “find out why it is known as the extremist capital of Britain”. (The programme can be watched, if you’re in the UK, for the next five days. More: Engage.)

Dooley’s aim was to interview people on both sides of the “divide” and made several attempts to contact Stephen Lennon, the leader of the so-called English Defence League which was formed in Luton in 2009 in reaction to an al-Muhajiroun demonstration against a parade by soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan. She tells us that she knew Lennon while growing up and cannot believe that he is now the leader of the EDL, as he never struck her as a racist. He was due to appear in a discussion on BBC Three Counties Radio, but failed to show up because he had been arrested, so the presenter made for Bury Park, the area where most of the Muslims live in Luton, where she found that an al-Muhajiroun demo was in full swing. (Or maybe not, because she somehow found time to change her clothing on the way from trying to catch Lennon at his tanning shop to trying to speak to those demonstrators.)

The demonstration turned out to be against the arrest of a local Muslim woman whose husband had set off a bomb in Stockholm in 2010. She was filmed standing in a bright orange dress in the midst of a “crowd” (of fewer than 100 people) shouting “British police go to hell” among other things, at one point telling a woman in niqaab that “no real Muslim wants anyone to burn in hell” (clearly quoting from a book she’d recently read) and when the Muslim woman objected, she said, “you can’t pick and choose”. Generally, she was sensitive in her manner of dress, wearing a headscarf to go into the mosque and was always shown wearing a long skirt, but in that scene she clearly tried to distinguish herself from them, in one scene standing and grimacing in front of a bunch of women in black. She put on a show of emotion while at the rally (after interviewing Anjem Choudhary), saying initially that she did not know how to describe how she was feeling, then saying she was “gutted”. Most Muslims regard that group with contempt, and they have a history of disrupting other Muslim protest movements.

Later on, she interviewed someone at the main local mosque, who noticeably avoided agreeing with her that the “go to hell” mob were not Muslims, merely that they were a different group from them. She also interviewed other local Muslims, and concentrated on “ordinary” Muslims, like her old Asian school friend, rather than leaders, so the efforts of Muslims to counter al-Muhajiroun (especially after an unrelated Muslim place of worship was targeted for an arson attack not long after the 2009 demo) was not even mentioned. She interviewed two local niqaabis who were not connected with al-Muhajiroun (both of whom wore their black niqaabs over a brightly coloured headscarf), and did a walkabout in niqaab with them, and found that she got a lot of hostile stares when she walked out of the Muslim-dominated Bury Park into the town centre, where there are a lot more white people. She said she could understand why those people preferred to stay in Bury Park, as Muslims were commonly accused of “segregating” themselves by so doing.

What was quite disturbing was the interviews with her old white friends, several of whom believed that the EDL had legitimate grievances including the suspicions that Muslims want to enforce Shari’ah law on everyone. He interviewed Kev Carroll, the “EDL’s number two”, in the same golf club where she had arranged to meet Lennon (who again failed to show up), and he wore a T-shirt saying “Infidel” and below it “Kafir” (which means the same thing) in Arabic and alleged that “black, white, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu - everyone gets on like a house on fire in Luton except for the Islamic community, because they do not want to integrate … and they admit that themselves”. Another Muslim she meets, however, tells her that Shari’ah law is the whole of the rules of Islam (and that someone praying is practising Shari’ah, for example) and that the punishment of stoning is only carried out if four men see the actual penetration, so it is meant as a deterrent and almost never to be carried out.

The problem is that she allowed the white interviewees to over-exaggerate the influence of the Muhajiroun and the grievances of the EDL. The idea that Bury Park could ever be mistaken for another country is nonsense given the British road signs, cars (not a single rickshaw in sight) and architecture and that most of the inhabitants are British Asians (and some other Muslims who have moved in seeking a mostly Muslim community), not foreign immigrants. The only thing that makes it look “foreign” is the high proportion of non-white people: such a thing would never be said of any district where a large white minority (Polish or Jewish, for example) lived, and it is entirely natural that people who share a culture, or a set of dietary or clothing requirements, should seek to live together for convenience, and all the more so if the people they might be expected to integrate with are racist. The perception of hostile “foreign enclaves” comes from the repeated prominent reporting of al-Muhajiroun demonstrations and even public statements by their former leader, Omar Bakri Muhammad, in the tabloid press as well as attacks on Muslim women’s dress habits on the front page of some tabloids (notably the Daily Express), particularly after Jack Straw’s comments about Muslim women who came to his surgery. The fact of inflammatory and prejudicial media coverage of any issue involving Muslims after 9/11 (and particularly the July 2005 bombings in London) was not even mentioned.

The programme did show that most Muslims in Luton are not al-Muhajiroun, that some do integrate and that the majority are peaceful people who are just getting on with their lives. However, Dooley’s manner did grate and her shows of “shock” at a tiny demonstration were unconvincing given that such demonstrations have become a regular news fixture over the past few years (although much less so now that the Tory press has turned to demonising “welfare scroungers” since the change of government in 2010), and have happened in many other places besides Luton. No examination of the rise of the EDL is complete without investigation of what the white working-class constituency behind the EDL have been reading, and this programme did not even begin to do that.

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