A rather plaintive question on the local council's website asks: "What is Luton in Harmony?" The official response is that it is a campaign to foster "civic pride" and so improve community cohesion in the Bedfordshire town. But after the events of the past weekend, it seems that the true answer is proving more elusive than ever.
Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a suicide bomber who blew himself up in Sweden, is thought to have been radicalised while studying and living in Luton, together with his wife and three children, one of whom is called Osama. Meanwhile, Pastor Terry Jones, an American preacher who has threatened to burn the Koran, is planning to visit the town early next year to address a rally held by the English Defence League, the anti-Islamist protest group that was formed there.
Although there may appear to be no direct link between the two events, in the eyes of many they provide more evidence that Luton, just 35 miles from London and home to a vibrant Asian population, is a hotbed of extremism and is segregated by race and religion. For beleaguered Lutonians it is yet another blow to the reputation of a place whose other claims to fame include an ailing car industry, a faded football club and an MP notorious for her expenses claims, and which has also been home in recent years to a letter-bomber and a drug addict who stabbed to death a policeman.
Religious leaders say their first thought was "here we go again" as the latest negative stories emerged, but insist they do not "reflect the reality of the town".
Peter Adams, of Churches Together, says: "We know that while we can't deny that there are issues, and they provoke extremism in some, the majority of people just want to get on with their lives. This is not what Luton is all about, by any means."
Some residents were quick to blame the media for the negative perception of Luton during a local radio phone-in titled "Does Luton scare you?" Yet it cannot be denied that the town has featured in a significant proportion of British terrorism plots over the past decade.
Just a month after the September 11 attacks, two young men from Luton were killed in a retaliatory bombing raid by US forces in Kabul. Afzal Munir and Aftab Manzoor, both 25, were reported to have been members of al-Muhajiroun, the now-banned British Islamist group which has long recruited in Luton, and had travelled to Afghanistan to take part in "jihad" alongside the Taliban.
One of the key members of the so-called fertiliser bomb plot gang, who discussed blowing up the Ministry of Sound nightclub or Bluewater shopping centre, also came from Luton. Salahuddin Amin grew up in Pakistan but moved there as a teenager and worked as a taxi driver to raise money for Kashmir. He told the Old Bailey that he had been radicalised by a man he met in a Luton mosque, who gave him videos that persuaded him to join the fight in Afghanistan. Amin, who is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions, also claimed he had met several senior terrorist commanders in Luton including one, Abu Munthir, at the mosque in Leagrave Road.
It was through an alleged middle man based in Luton that the fertiliser gang was introduced to the radical Muslims who would become the July 7 bombers, and they were watched by MI5 meeting at the Toddington service station on the M1 a few miles to the north. When the July 7 bombers launched their murderous attacks on London, it was at Luton railway station that they left their car and took a train to the capital.
The activities of Muslim extremists in Luton have, in turn, spawned opposing groups. In March 2009, a group of radical Muslims staged a protest during a homecoming parade for members of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, in the town centre, holding up offensive placards and shouting "baby killers" and "terrorists" at the soldiers. Five men – who refused to stand for the judge during their trial – were later convicted of using threatening and abusive words and given conditional discharges.
It was the anti-troops protest that prompted a group of angry young white men to form a group called United People of Luton, and hold a march to declare "No Sharia law in the UK" and "Respect our troops". The organisation later became known as the English Defence League and has gone on to hold demonstrations up and down the country against radical Islam, some of which have turned violent.
Many EDL members are known to have links to football hooligans, and its leader uses the pseudonym Tommy Robinson in tribute to a former leader of the Luton Town "firm", the Men in Gear. But the group denies whipping up hatred against ordinary Muslims.
"We highlight the issue." Robinson told a BBC Three Counties Radio phone-in. "We have Luton Borough Council trying to brush it under the carpet, saying 'we're a town in harmony'. No we're not – there's a massive problem." A leaked intelligence report, compiled by MI5, Special Branch and the Ministry of Defence, appeared to back up concerns about the town by listing Luton as a "notable" centre for "extremist networks" in the south of England.
For their part, Muslim leaders claim they expelled the Stockholm suicide bomber after he started railing against Islamic leaders and scholars worldwide. Qadeer Baksh, chairman of the Luton Islamic Centre, insists: "The community did not know that he would take it so far as to sow the seeds of discord and extremism". But critics say Islamists continue to target students arriving at the University of Bedfordshire at the start of each academic year, and distribute extremist literature from stalls in the town centre.
Some argue it is only natural that a tiny, but vocal, minority will be radical in a town where Muslims make up about a fifth of the 212,000 population. But it has schools, estates and shopping areas that are almost entirely white or entirely Asian, with the result that large numbers of children will grow up knowing little of how the other half lives.
Sarfraz Manzoor, a writer whose memoir Greetings from Bury Parkdescribes growing up in Luton during the 1980s, says: "Education is at the heart of the solution – there are schools in Luton that are effectively monocultural and that is both socially divisive and potentially dangerous."
Others also believe that the town's reputation for radicalism means that it acts as a magnet to like-minded individuals and groups.
Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, says: "It's an extremely segregated place – it is divided as a town and the Muslim area is extremely Islamified. If you go down the high street after Friday prayers, you meet all the radical groups one after the other."
The town's wider and longer-term problems are also sometimes cited as a reason for the radicalisation of its youths, both white and Asian. Long known for its hat factories, in the 20th century Luton became home to a vast Vauxhall Motors plant. But both industries are shadows of their former selves, while the Second World War and Sixties' planners changed the town beyond recognition. Even its football club – one of the first professional teams in southern England, and League Cup winners in the 1980s – recently dropped out of the football league after 89 years.
One of Luton's biggest success stories now is easyJet, the low-cost airline, and while its airport is efficient and close to London, for many it remains best known as the punchline to a 1970s advert for Campari, in which Lorraine Chase, asked: "Were you truly wafted here from paradise?", replies: "Nah, Luton Airport!"
Some commentators suggest it is this lack of famous names or cultural exports that dooms Luton to negative headlines about extremism. A new campaign called Love Luton hopes to inspire some local pride by winning coveted city status for the Queen's diamond jubilee year.
Esther Rantzen, the television presenter who stood for election in Luton South earlier this year after the constituency became notorious for the expenses claims of Margaret Moran, its Labour MP, believes the town has many good points, such as its transport links, but needs something like new business development to repair its tarnished brand.
"Alongside that very warm-hearted, caring aspect of the Luton community which I have just seen in a carol service, I'm afraid there is a minority of people who are criminal and take to violence," she says. "That's probably true of many towns, but alas with Luton it seems to dominate the public image.
"There needs to be something positive to put alongside these negative headlines. There is the space, there is the location, they could really make it somewhere people want to come for fun."