‘Gays Against Shariah’ Confounds UK Media Narratives

Published June 12th, 2017 - 01:24 GMT
'Gays Against Sharia - UK' organizers hold up a rainbow flag during a march in Manchester (Photo: Twitter @EnglishTommy1)
'Gays Against Sharia - UK' organizers hold up a rainbow flag during a march in Manchester (Photo: Twitter @EnglishTommy1)

One year has passed since the horrific attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, claimed the lives of 49 people, yet the response of the LGBT community to what was essentially a homophobic hate crime has been far from united. Last Sunday, just the first anniversary of the attack, a British organization called “Gays Against Shariah - UK” held a march in Manchester, England, a city healing after a bombing at an Ariana Grande concert killed 22 people last month.

The event, led by a man going by the name “Tommy English,” drew thousands of protesters and counter-protesters, and led to a number of arrests. Making up a large portion—perhaps even a majority—of the crowd were members of the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right movement which opposes what it perceives to be the threat of radical Islam. However, what was particularly interesting about this protest was its media coverage, and the manner in which news outlets reported on an event organized by an LGBT group and attended by those many believe to be neo-Nazis and fascists.

Last week, crowds coordinated by the conservative group ACT for America—described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of being a hate group which spews “wild hate speech demonizing Muslims”—gathered across dozens of cities throughout the US to protest against “sharia law.” The media response was predictable: progressive, liberal outlets such as Slate labeled the protests “anti-Muslim” and focused on what it saw as Islamophobia among attendees; conservative sites such as Breitbart chose to discuss the perceived evils of “sharia” and alleged violence of anti-fascist counter-protesters. Media outlets on both sides of the political spectrum were able to spin the story to fit into their narratives.

However, the case of the “Gays Against Shariah” march held in Manchester has been handled far differently. Very little coverage was given in the lead-up to the event— less than 70 people had confirmed their attendance on Facebook—but media outlets began weighing-in as the day progressed.

The Build-Up

It started on January 29 of this year, when the “Gays Against Shariah - UK” Facebook page shared an event called “Unite Against Hate.” The featured photo included a homophobic quote by US cleric Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick.

(Quick has since apologised for the statement, saying that it had been made many years ago and did not represent his current views.)

Between January and the protest itself, there was little related media coverage. However, on June 7th, LGBT website PinkNews published an article accusing Gays Against Shariah of being “an organisation of far-right and anti-Islam activists” who were hijacking the anniversary of the Orlando attack. The article noted that other LGBT groups were planning on holding a counter-protest.

The counter-protest was being organized by groups “Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants” and “Action for Trans Health”; it was posted to Facebook and attracted far more interest than the anti-sharia protest itself, with hundreds expressing an interest in attending.

The groups described “Gays Against Shariah - UK” as a “faction” of the EDL; they emphasised that they did not represent the LGBT community and were exploiting “LGBT grief and struggle to violate other marginalized communities.”

Various right-wing sites, including Breitbart and RightWingNews, were then quick to pick-up on the story, with the latter accusing “LGBT crusaders for attention” of reacting with “self-righteous hysteria.”

Other than the article in PinkNews, there appears to have been no coverage of the counter-protest; however, an article opposing the “Gays Against Shariah” march appeared on the extremist far-right Knights Templar International website, which accused the LGBT community (even those opposed to “sharia” law) of ruining their health and condemning their souls “to eternal torment.”

The Event

During the march, there was initially light coverage on local news outlets; however, the conversation on Twitter was lively. BBC North West Tweeted that 700 EDL protesters had taken to the streets of Manchester, but were quickly called out by Twitter users emphasising that the event was, in fact, organized by an LGBT group.

The Tweet appears to have been deleted, although a later Tweet also failed to note the fact that the march had been organized by an LGBT group, and faced similar criticism.

The Aftermath

Although it remains unclear, it appears that there are no official ties between “Gays Against Shariah - UK” and the EDL, though it’s doubtful the far-right EDL would need much to show up for an “anti-sharia” protest.

But the failure of the BBC to accurately report on the event caused a stir among many online. National news reporting on the protest overwhelmingly left out any mention of “Gays Against Shariah - UK” and its leader, Tommy English, including right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail.

According to ITV News, the march had been organized by former-EDL leader Tommy Robinson, who was indeed present, as the Manchester Evening News confirmed. Only Yahoo Finance acknowledged Gays Against Shariah; however, it, too, claimed that Robinson had led the protest.

Of course, when Robinson shows up alongside hundreds of far-right protesters at a march, it is completely natural for media outlets to react the way they did. However the failure to mention Tommy English and his “Gays Against Shariah - UK” organisation is fuel for those who buy into theories about “fake news” being reported by so-called “mainstream media.”

In the evening after the march, English live-streamed to his online followers and accused the police and local council of hindering the event. He emphasized that it was not an EDL march, claiming that officials and the media were only saying it was EDL in order to attract more counter-protesters. He did say, however, that he would be happy to help with any future events for Robinson if asked.

The lack of media interest before the event is understandable, given the small number of people who had expressed an interest on Facebook; the media can hardly be expected to cover every event, big and small. However, if media outlets shy away from reporting accurately on controversial events which challenge the notion that the LGBT community overlaps at times with the far-right, then the accusations of “Fake News!” will only escalate.

Claiming that LGBT activism is being “hijacked” by neo-fascists does not adequately explain the complex situation at hand. It is entirely possible for an LGBT person to be far-right (as exemplified by fallen Breitbart darling Milo), and while it is reasonable and commendable that the rest of the LGBT community distances itself from them, incomplete or inaccurate reporting will do nothing more than add fuel to a raging “fake news” fire.

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