A tiny side bar in the tragic events of Orlando was a mini media spat in the UK in which a commentator who is gay accused a presenter and a co-guest of deflecting from the fact that the attack on the night club was a homophobic act.
This is a sidebar, but one worth debating because it is also about the story as a whole.
Sky News presenter Mark Longhurst was chairing a paper review with guests Julia Hartley-Brewer and Owen Jones. Mr Jones, a stalwart left winger and campaigner against Islamophobia was clearly upset about the attack, and, as a gay man felt he strongly identified with the victims.
Towards the beginning of the programme Jones stressed the importance of ‘calling out’ that this was an attack on the LGBT community. Longhurst agreed it was that saying ‘‘deliberate targeting of them’. Hartley- Brewer agreed – ‘This was a hate crime and an act of terrorism’.
Jones argued that people who would not normally talk about gay rights were going to ‘appropriate’ the attack because the perpetrator was a Muslim- Omar Mateen. He also complained that there were few LBGT voices being invited onto the broadcast media.
Things got heated when Longhurst mentioned the Paris club attacks and suggested Orlando was, like Paris, an attack ‘on the freedom of all people to enjoy themselves’. Jones replied ‘I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand this because you’re not gay’ to which Longhurst retorted ‘Whether I’m gay or not has no reflection on the fact that this person killed 50 people’.
He then moved on to a newspaper headline -‘Isil wages war on gays in the West’ and asked Jones ‘You share that view that basically this was deliberately targeted on one part of the community rather than the freedom to enjoy yourself no matter what your sexual orientation is?’ to which Jones said ‘What on earth, what are you talking about?’ Longhurst pointed out they were discussing the newspapers, Jones said ‘And I am trying to understand the point you’re making. This was a deliberate attack on LGBT people in an LGBT venue. It was a homophobic terrorist attack. Do you not understand that?’
Longhurst then quoted the American authorities that based on what the perpetrators father had said Mateen ‘may have have targeted the homosexual community;’. This infuriated Jones. ‘May have! He did! Why are you saying this?’
Hartley-Brewer said ‘we’re not saying he’s not homophobic… I completely accept, as he does, that it was a homophobic attack’.
Longhurst mentioned the LGBT rights group Stonewall to which Jones, who was by now staring sullenly at the floor and not engaging, said ‘Oh you’re going to have an LBGT voice talking about it are you? Interesting’. ‘Sorry?’ says Longhurst – ‘Nothing’ replies Jones and then walks off the set.
So, what was that all about?
It seems Jones was determined to see the murders only as being a homophobic attack directed against gays and not connected to religion, and the presenter was framing it as also another attack on the Western way of life and not as part of ‘everyday’ homophobia.
Longhurst was also trying to explore if the attack fitted into the wider pattern of violent Islamist assaults on freedoms but took care to say that the evidence was not yet in.
Everything in Jones’s writing suggests he would not see the attack as an example of the Islamist’s hatred of gays even if it were proved, and it has not yet been, that Mateen acted out of religious conviction.
For him it fits into the narrative of the continuing prejudice, indeed persecution, of LGBT people. In this he is entirely correct. But at no point did anyone disagree with him. He was so upset at the event that he appeared not to have heard the other two say, several times, that they agreed the attack was homophobic.
Jones has spent years combatting Islamophobia and knows that this event will feed prejudice against Muslims. It seems to me he was so upset about the incident, and is simultaneously so deeply ingrained with the world view that the waves of terrorist attacks in the last decade are nothing to do with Islam, that he became furious when the discussion began to open up and potentially link the Pulse Club with the Bataclan.
It may be that Mateen, despite his pledge of allegiance to ISIS, was motivated solely by homophobia and that that phobia was divorced from his religious beliefs. However, homophobia is often linked to religious belief. Large sections of the Christian church still regard it as a sin, and it was entirely reasonable to explore the possibilities that religion, warped or not, may have played a role in the terrible events in Orlando.
Modern left wing thinking is hamstrung by its own theology of minorities. LGBT people are a minority and suffer prejudice, Muslims in the West are a minority and suffer prejudice. What many people cannot do is to accept that within minorities there can be widespread prejudice towards others.
It is hard, indeed impossible, to argue that within Islam, as within Christianity, there is not overt prejudice against homosexuality and that people will act on that prejudice.
Walking away from that debate is to be part of the problem.
For the record I know and am friendly with both Mark Longhurst and Julia Hartley-Brewer, but do not know Mr Jones.