Over the last year, the soap opera Hollyoaks has explored the growing threat of far right extremism in the UK through a gay character. Contrary to the previous stereotype of the white, straight, male, Ste Hay’s story exposes a new trend, which focuses on recruiting minorities.
The Channel 4 show has worked closely with Prevent and ExitUK, which helps people involved in far right extremism get out, to spread awareness of the increase of the far right and how they recruit people like Ste. Their story begins with the loss of his half sister, who dies as the result of complications during emergency surgery. During the same period, Ste loses his job, his house and begins to drink heavily.
These factors, coupled with his belief that a Muslim doctor is responsible for his sister’s death, make Ste an easy target for two far right extremists, Jonny Baxter and Stuart Sumner.
“They found an angry young man, who had lost his way in life, and they leapt on you,” explains Sami, Ste’s Muslim neighbour. Research suggests that extremist and terrorist groups target people who are vulnerable, for example, those who are unemployed. Such people feel marginalised and ignored by society and the government and are an easy target for anti-establishment far right recruitment.
These groups give the individual a sense of purpose and brotherhood, creating a strong feeling of allegiance. For Ste, the group provides him with direction and a cause: “I just wanted people to start taking me seriously … I just wanted some respect.”
Widening the pool of recruitment
Groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) have been highly successful in recruiting individuals who would not normally be associated with the far right. For example, in 2011, the EDL had a gender makeup of 81% men and 19% women. It also had an LGBT division which in 2016 had over 3,500 likes on its Facebook profile. The EDL group has since been banned by Facebook in an attempt to prevent recruitment.
These groups appeal to some LGBT individuals because of the perception that Islam is intolerant of the community. In one episode, Ste states that he’s seen videos proving that Muslims can’t stand gay people and that they protest outside schools in an attempt to ban lessons on homosexuality.
This belief, that all Muslims are homophobic, has been exacerbated by targeted attacks on the community, like that on Pulse nightclub in 2016. In the immediate aftermath, there was a large outcry from the American Muslim community condemning the attack, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) stating that it “violates our principles as Americans and as Muslims”.
Regardless of this, far right groups continue to argue that Islam is not compatible with modern values that support LGBT lifestyles.
This same tactic is used on women, citing oppression under Sharia Law, such as the wearing of the burqa, which is perceived to be a symbol of patriarchal power. As such, many of the groups claim to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. They also attempt to appeal to different ethnic and religious minority groups. For example, the EDL have Sikh, Hindu and Jewish divisions, which they use to claim that they are not racist.
New look radical right
The “new far right” is different from the traditional fascistic groups like the British National Party (BNP) and National Front. Historically, far right groups would have been racist, sexist and homophobic, embodied by the stereotype of a male, white, skinhead.
New groups, however, are not so easily recognisable and often shatter stereotypes. They do so by seemingly embracing members of the LGBT community, women and non-white people – accepting them based on their collective hatred towards Islam.
This collective hatred is part of a Western trend exacerbated by the portrayal of Muslims in the media and by politicians as well as by the threat of Islamist terrorist attacks. This has led to the perception that Muslims are attempting to erode British values and culture through the introduction of Sharia Law.
Between 2017 and 2018, 44% of 394 people referred to the Channel support programme (a sub-division of the deradicalisation initiative Prevent) were flagged in relation to right wing extremism. This year, the police have called far right extremism the fastest-growing terror threat in the UK, and a mainstream TV show like Hollyoaks picking up this storyline highlights just how far-reaching the issue is.
Through the character of Ste, Hollyoaks has been able to go some of the way towards exposing this “new look” far right and the unlikely people it is now radicalising. The modern member isn’t only a white, racist, homophobic, male skinhead; they are also female, and members of the LGBT community and other ethnic and religious minority groups.