Violent clashes between anti-Islam demonstrators and Muslim counter-protesters in English cities are worrying the government, with one British minister comparing the disturbances to 1930s-era fascist incitement.
The violence that has hit Luton, Birmingham and London in the last few months has involved a loose collection of far-right groups — such as the previously unknown English Defense League — on one side and anti-fascist organizations and Muslim youth on the other.
In an interview published Saturday, Communities Minister John Denham accused the anti-Islam protesters of deliberately stirring up trouble.
"The tactic of trying to provoke a response in the hope of causing wider violence and mayhem is long established on the far-right and among extremist groups," Denham was quoted as saying by The Guardian newspaper. "You could go back to the 1930s if you wanted to — Cable Street."
Denham was referring to a 1936 confrontation sparked by British fascist leader Oswald Mosley's decision to march through the then-heavily Jewish East End of London. Mosley's pro-Nazi followers were met at Cable Street by Jews, communists and anarchists, and a pitched battle ensued.
The English Defense League rejects the fascist label, arguing that it only opposes militant Islam. On its Web site, the group claims that the violence at its rallies has been provoked by Muslims and far-left groups.
The group did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inayat Bunglawala said the League's stated opposition to militant Islam was just "a fig leaf" to hide the group's true anti-Muslim mission.
"These are not people who support community cohesion," he said.
'Extremely worrying developments'
Bunglawala added that Muslim Council, an umbrella group for British Muslim organizations, had seen a spike in anti-Muslim incidents — including arson attacks on mosques — in the past few months.
"These are extremely worrying developments," he told The Associated Press on Saturday.
British media have traced the origins of the League to Luton, an ethnically mixed town north of London which in March was the site of a small but widely covered protest against the British Army. Bearded Islamists picketed a homecoming parade for British soldiers returning from Iraq, holding up signs accusing the men of being "butchers" and "baby-killers."
Tensions boiled over in May, when a demonstration by a far-right group calling itself United People of Luton led to South Asian businesses being attacked and cars being smashed.
In August the group's successor, the English Defense League, tried to mount a protest in Birmingham, where they clashed with anti-fascist demonstrators. This month, the League's second attempt at a Birmingham protest quickly descended into violence, with some 200 people — many of them of South Asian descent — seen fighting, throwing projectiles and running from riot police. Police made 90 arrests.
More protests promised
On Friday, an openly Islamophobic group, Stop Islamification of Europe, promised an evening protest outside a northwest London mosque to coincide with the eighth anniversary of Sept. 11 and with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
Only a handful of demonstrators showed up — and they were vastly outnumbered by Muslims coming to defend the mosque.
Police hustled the protesters away from the angry crowd. But television footage showed Muslim youths racing through the streets shouting "Allahu Akbar!", waving Islamic banners and throwing projectiles at riot police. Scotland Yard reported 10 arrests.
"They gave the fascists and far-right what they wanted, and I think that's a shame," lawmaker Tony McNulty told Sky News television.
The far-right League, meanwhile, has promised more protests in London, Luton, Manchester and Leeds over the next few weeks.