The Reverend Ruth Scott is an Anglican priest, writer and broadcaster. In this report, she reviews the recent meeting that she attended in Luton, which was hosted by Quilliam, aimed at building dialogue between Muslims and community members linked to the EDL.

Unobtrusively, in the function room of a Luton pub, an extraordinary meeting took place on Sunday 8th December. Regional leaders and representatives of the English Defence League (EDL) from across England came together with a group of Muslims living in or linked to Luton. They were there at the invitation of Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, co-founders and, until recently, co-leaders of the EDL, and Usama Hasan and Ghaffar Hussain of the Quilliam Foundation.

Tommy and Usama spoke about the past experiences that have led to their present understanding about the necessity of dialogue between Muslims and EDL members open to such a conversation.

Tommy spoke about his passion for countering Islamist extremism and his growing concern about the Neo-Nazi ‘thugs’ attaching themselves to EDL actions. He made it clear that he is not opposed to Muslims or Islam in general but stressed that not enough is being done to counter extremism in the UK. He believes ‘brand EDL’ cannot enable the dialogue which now needs to happen, and is keen to look for ways forward that will enable the issues to be addressed effectively.

Usama charted his experience of racist attacks and how he was radicalised by them. Study and on-going encounters caused him to move away from radical Islam to a British Islam, consistent with Muslim tradition. He believes that moderate Muslims have an important part to play in countering extremism in their own community and more widely. In the face of conflict he is committed to peaceful ways of addressing the issues.

Ghaffar invited questions from the floor. What followed for the next couple of hours was a passionate, sometimes noisy discussion, shot through with expressions of pain and anger, but also plenty of laughter. Stereotypes were challenged on both sides. Fears on both sides were expressed but hope was also present. Both groups recognised to some degree the destructive and divisive elements within their own communities. While those participating did not always find it easy to listen to one another, and disagreed vocally at times, they did share a number of concerns and were open to the possibility of addressing these together.

After a short break the participants continued the discussion in small mixed groups. When the meeting came to an end it was clear that many of those who had taken part wished for the dialogue to continue. A number of the participants exchanged contact information with a view to meeting up again. It is a testament to the respect they felt for those who had invited them, and to their own commitment to talking with each other that despite sometimes heated disagreement and inaccurate assumptions about one another, they remained in the debate, continued talking long after the original planned ending, and looked forward to on-going communication.

From a personal perspective I admire greatly the courage of those who agreed to take part in this remarkable meeting. In the space of a few hours they began to establish channels of communications that could go a long way towards reducing tensions and mutual distrust. Dialogue is, and always has been, the first step in reducing tensions between peoples and at a function room of a Luton pub last Sunday, that vital first step was taken.