We didn't know what to expect as we drove into Luton, about 30 miles north of London. We knew the industrial town was ethnically mixed, with about 45,000 South Asian Muslims, some 30% of the population. We also knew it was where one of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombers had lived. The four bombers began their fateful day at the Luton train station, before heading into London, killing 56. Now we were looking for Muslims, and non-Muslims, to tell us, frankly, what life was like SINCE the attack, and almost two years to the day after the Madrid train bombings. Our story was meant to kick off a special series on the "Faces of Islam in Europe," but things were not going well.
First, it was pouring rain. Luton's streets were deserted. The townfolk who did venture out were hidden beneath umbrellas and parkas -- terrible for TV coverage. The rain shorted out our camera, which would roll and stop on its own. When we found the Town Hall and Luton's mayor -- a 31 year old Muslim of Bangladeshi origin -- he summarily 'white-washed' any tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in his town. After blaming the media for most of the ills, he sent us to another city counselor, in the Muslim enclave called Bury Park. He likewise could think of no one to talk to who could address the problems of increased discrimination against Muslims, aggressive immigration laws, police searches, security checks for Muslim job applicants, and the myriad other issues that Muslims, elsewhere, had documented in detail.
After hours of running in circles, our deadline approaching, I was close to 'putting a bullet' in our shoot and starting from scratch in another British town. We were now stuck in traffic, in the rain, behind a massive Luton city bus. In sheer frustration, I jumped from our vehicle and began to guide the bus driver, a British female who looked overwhelmed by her predicament, through the narrow but negotiable jam. A crowd (of South Asians) began to gather in the street. Perhaps to see the spectacle of a white Westerner guiding a city bus in this Pakistani Muslim ghetto? As is so often the case, it was THEN that the story we were looking for bit us in our collective behinds. A man walked out of a Halal meat shop and introduced himself to my cameraman, Steve O'Neil, who had decided to grab a few frames of 'local color' as I directed traffic. The man, Abdul Rahim Malik, turned out to be the veritable Sheikh of Luton. Not a mealy-mouthed politician, this entrepreneur owned several businesses, banks, and had opened Luton's first mosque. He offered an interview, without solicitation, to Steve. Did we want to know about the British police raids and arrests in Luton, since the bombings, that had turned up no terrorist material and had so far led to no charges? Steve replied, 'you may want to ask my correspondent who, unfortunately, is directing traffic at the moment.''
Mr. Malik was a gem. He explained, on camera, how the raids had created nothing but anger and suspicion among local Muslim residents. And this from a man who, it turned out, was a board member on Luton's Police Authority. He apologized for not being able to put us in touch with one of the families whose homes had been raided (at 4 in the morning). The police, he said, had told the families not to speak with the press. But he did recommend a middle aged widow named Naseen Imdiaz who ran a Learning Center for other Muslim women in Luton. We met Nasreen, and never looked back. She described how frightening it was for Muslims to walk the streets. Since the bombings, the whites taunted them, calling them terrorists. Her brother, Bishar, told us (also on camera) that the local politicians would only lie to us. That, in fact, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, despite the efforts of those like Nasreen, had only deteriorated. The story was coming together nicely.
Over the years, I've never ceased to be amazed at how, no matter how lost this reporter feels, a Mr. Malik appears to guide me through it all. If ONLY our Sheikh of Luton could have stopped the rain!
Editor's note: You can read & watch Jim's story as it aired on Friday's broadcast here.