Violent clashes between groups of mainly Hindu and Muslim young men will spread beyond Leicester to other towns and cities without central government and police intervention, a local MP has warned.
Claudia Webbe, whose Leicester East constituency has been at the centre of several incidents over the past month, said ministers needed to clamp down on “extremist rightwing ideology” and misinformation being spread through social media.
There was a tense standoff between groups of Muslim and Hindu men, and the police, on Saturday evening alongside outbreaks of sporadic violence.
A demonstration on Sunday resulted in the arrests of 18 people, eight of whom came from outside Leicestershire, the Guardian disclosed.
Webbe said: “The reality is that we have fringe elements led and inspired by extremism and rightwing ideology rearing its head in the UK and in the peaceful city of Leicester.
“If we do not understand the root cause this will spread beyond Leicester to other areas. The government needs to intervene and ensure that social media platforms stop this from getting much, much worse.”
On Tuesday, Hindu and Muslim leaders in the city issued a joint statement calling for unity and calm.
It said: “Our two faiths have lived harmoniously in this wonderful city, for over half a century. We arrived in this city together, we faced the same challenges together we fought off racist haters together and collectively made this city a beacon of diversity, and community cohesion.”
The atmosphere in Leicester was aggravated by videos circulating online over the weekend showing a man pulling down a flag outside a Hindu temple and another video of a flag being burned.
The High Commission of India released a statement on Twitter strongly condemning “the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester, and vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion”.
Webbe wrote to Leicestershire police’s temporary chief constable at the start of the month, and again before the weekend’s recent trouble, urging vigilance, and passing on reports “of incitement to hate targeting at those of Muslim and of Hindu faith”.
In one letter, Webbe said some constituents had voiced fears to her that violence was driven in part by “underlying Islamophobia in parts of Leicester’s communities, rather than an isolated incident”.
Days later, on 14 September, Webbe wrote to the chief constable claiming “ongoing disturbances” and “incitement to hate” incidents on 5 September, and on 9 September, following which two arrests were made.
She said constituents had told her tensions in the community may be more long-standing and not related simply to the India v Pakistan cricket match that took place on 28 August as part of the Asia Cup tournament in the UAE.
Writing before the weekend’s latest incidents, Webbe told the police of “incitement to hate being targeted at those of Muslim and Hindu faith, through hastily arranged protests”.
One such call was for a protest against “Muslim hate crime” on 11 September at 9pm on Belgrave Road, in the heart of the mainly Hindu area of the constituency.
Webbe told the police: “I have no doubt that this fake event was designed to provoke additional clashes and to cause disharmony and distrust.”
She said she saw evidence this weekend that gangs had come in to Leicester prepared for violence.
“I walked around the constituency and saw blue surgical gloves [worn to avoid leaving fingerprints] and dozens of black balaclavas discarded in the back streets. Weapons have been found by the police. It is leaving people frightened to leave their homes,” she said.
Webbe, who was elected as a Labour MP but sits as an independent after being found guilty of harassment, called for the police to co-ordinate a national response and for social media companies to intervene.
“Much of this violence and hate is being shared on social media and through online communications. It is racism and fascism and it is rearing its ugly head. It is a national problem that requires a national response by the police and other agencies.
“The social media firms – TikTok and Twitter and WhatsApp – are the mediums that are being used and they should bear some responsibility,” she said.
Sharmen Rahman, a Labour councillor in Leicester, also said she had a “genuine fear” the issue could spread nationwide.
“I feel like it could lead to a more nationwide issue, where other communities in other cities start reacting to this,” Rahman said. “There is a sense of calm at the moment, but we had a sense of calm before things flared up again. I’m not sure it’s gone away and I think there are matters that need to be dealt with, quite urgently.”
Rahman said the lack of political leadership over the issue had been “a catastrophic failure for the city”.
“We haven’t gone unwarned, this has been increasing in recent years, but it hasn’t been tackled, and that’s an issue,” she said.
“If there had been a more active stance from the leadership of the city, this could have been nipped in the bud. But there wasn’t, there was a complete lull and absence, until everything completely went out of control over this weekend.”