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(An English Defence League supporter with effigy of Osama Bin Laden mask during a rally in Luton, February 5, 2011/Paul Hackett)

About 1,500 far-right protesters marched through the centre of the British city of Luton Saturday to rally against “militant Islam,” requiring a heavy police presence to avert clashes with 1,000 anti-fascist demonstrators. A sixth of Luton’s population is Muslim, and past marches by the English Defence League have led to conflict with their opponents. The city centre turned into a virtual ghost town before the rally, with shops boarded up and pubs closed.

But police and community activists averted large-scale violence, making only eight arrests on a mix of assault, drugs and weapons charges. There were no serious injuries.

Tensions ran high as EDL leader Stephen Lennon told marchers to reject the influence of Islam in British public life. “Every single one of you are on the forefront of the fight against militant Islam,” he said, as supporters chanted the EDL’s name and nationalist songs based on those more usually associated with English football games.

The EDL, which says it is not a racist organisation, welcomed a speech by Prime Minister David Cameron earlier Saturday, where he told international leaders that his country had been too tolerant of British Islamists who rejected Western norms. Multiculturalism has failed and left young Muslims vulnerable to radicalisation, he said in Munich.