soupboy

How I Became the Muslim Punching Bag for the U.K.’s Racist Far Right

My life as the infamous ‘Soup Boy’

There’s a popular right-wing trope online about the U.K., which alleges that the police spend more time investigating tweets than they do knife crime. In this myth, well-meaning people who just happen to have conservative opinions — for example, that Muslims and transgender people are the greatest threat to Western civilization — are targeted for making jokes, and being labeled as “racists” simply for speaking their mind. “Liking tweets is now a potential thought crime in the U.K.,” the British YouTuber Independent Man suggests in a recent video. Similarly, Glasgow-based Mark Meechan — also known as “Count Dankula” — is a man who got famous for teaching his girlfriend’s dog how to do a Nazi salute. In other words, he’s built an entire brand on the back of being so “edgy” that the British authorities have no choice but to restrict his speech.

All of this, of course, seemed like whiny bullshit to me until last year, when procrastinating, I went on Twitter and made what I thought was a glib, somewhat ridiculous joke. I pretended to be a barista at an unnamed coffee shop in London, who overcharged white, non-Muslim people for soup when they ordered coffee. What’s worse, my fictional boss knew all about this, but wouldn’t fire me because I’m Muslim.

The tweet was based on a format that’s fairly common in left(ish) spaces on Twitter in response to Baby Boomers, MAGA fans and right-wing accounts who make obviously false and outrageous claims. Case in point: One common theme I often come across is the idea of a “Muslim takeover” of cities like London, which, if you’ve spent more than an hour here, is insane. Still, the myth has currency on the right: Former Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam even wrote an entire book called No Go Zones, alleging that Muslims have overrun most European and U.S. cities. And last year, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed about “Islamic London,” in which a reporter spent a couple of hours in an area with a historically high Muslim population. “Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam,” Andy Ngo writes.

Naturally, my tweet “resonated” and was retweeted by thousands of people, including right-wing figures like Infowars correspondent Paul Joseph Watson and pundit David Vance. Within a few hours, it was being quote-tweeted earnestly by tons of accounts with U.S., U.K. and Israeli flags — the type of accounts that feature “BREXIT” or “TRUMP” in capital letters or that have hashtags like “#1A” or “#2A” in their Twitter bios. Some of them sent me DMs, too, which ranged from calling me “Muslim scum” to more direct threats. Two of these people went as far as to report me to the London Metropolitan Police — the U.K.’s most elite police force — accusing me of carrying out hate crimes against white people. Others emailed my place of work trying to get me fired and/or get my upcoming book about the online world of British Muslims dropped by my publisher.

In the parlance of right-wing commentators, the tweet was “triggering” and potentially dangerous. (Full disclosure: I deleted the tweet when several Muslim users pointed out that while funny, only one person needed to believe it for something dangerous to happen — an extremely real concern in the wake of the New Zealand terror attacks.)

The response — especially when we ask what the role of humor, satire and fake news is in our current cultural moment — is telling. In theory, the tweet did exactly what right-wing and conservative comedians claim they do when they make “jokes” misgendering trans people or calling Muslim women “ninjas” and “letterboxes.” But while they claim that the outrage over their “jokes” is yet another example of “social justice warriors” shutting down free speech (and that “social justice warriors” aren’t funny in the first place), they mysteriously disappeared when it came to defending me and my soup joke. Even the free-speech cavalry of Quillette, Spiked, The Spectator and The National Review each of which is quick to chase clicks by pointing to the “offense” taken by college students and left-leaning millennials on Twitter, and who have proposed “free speech mandates” on college campuses — never arrived to uphold my freedom to say what I want (as a “joke” or otherwise).

So why am I telling you all of this now, months later? Mainly because I’ve been thinking about the Soup tweet in relation to the recent case of Titania McGrath. For the uninitiated, McGrath is a “parody” account. Its humor is largely an amalgamation of everything right-wing Baby Boomers imagine a left-wing college student to be: a graduate student in gender studies, white and blonde with the constant burden of white guilt.

McGrath’s account was created by columnist Andrew Doyle, a seemingly quiet, bookish man who wanted to satirize a generation of extremely online millennials: “A vocal minority of activists enjoy pontificating to the masses from their online lectern, berating those who fall short of their moral expectations, and endlessly trawling through old tweets in the hope of discovering a misjudged phrase or sentiment that could justify a campaign of public shaming.”

“The most vicious remarks you’ll find on social media come from the racist far right and woke intersectionalists,” he adds. “They are two heads of the same chimera.”

Yet, when you read further into Doyle’s explanation, the purpose of Titania McGrath seems to unravel. He transitions from critiques on individuals like model Munroe Bergdorf, who spoke publicly about systemic white privilege in her industry, to an anecdote about a smartphone app to help women speak up in meetings, which he says received “the standard feminist line on the intrinsic fragility of women,” though there’s little to substantiate the claim. McGrath, Doyle suggests, is the result of all of this “left-wing moralizing” in which there’s no room for “redemption.” As The Outline’s Tom Whyman writes, “[McGrath] is exactly the sort of person middle-aged men like to imagine is telling them they’re not allowed to say whatever they want any more.”

Since Doyle was revealed to be the creator of the McGrath account, he’s been the subject of numerous op-eds and radio and television interviews. Unherd, a conservative-leaning U.K. newsite, describes McGrath as “perfect for our times” while the Spectator refers to Doyle as “a genius.”

But in both articles, there’s little that explains the intelligence, wit or purpose of the humor. There’s no punching up — a key element of satire. The obvious target tends to be transgender people, immigrants, refugees, and of course, the left-leaning millennials — the most disadvantaged age demographic in recent times — who support them.

My use of satire, on the other hand, came from a place of exhaustion from my own experiences of racism and Islamophobia online. I wanted to expose “debate me” dudes who use bad-faith arguments to play to their audience, and show how toxic social media platforms have become to non-white people, women and non-heterosexuals. (These same platforms were also built to let bullshit like my jokes go viral.) It was an exhaustion that the tens of thousands of people who like and retweet my jokes clearly share — the same for ethnic minorities who are rarely given platforms to express their anger and anxieties, let alone express them through comedy.

For me, the soup tweet took aim at right-wing communities that are convinced the world’s ills don’t lie at the hands of the wealthy but rather those who look, sound and live differently than them. It took their batshit worldview and directed it right back at them — exposing how ridiculous the source of their outrage is. And while the tweet may not have achieved enough notoriety to warrant a bunch of TV interviews and op-ed opportunities like my right-wing counterparts, I did get to keep my day job (and book deal). Better yet, I can now confidently say that the London police have spent more time on knife crime in the intervening months than limiting my speech on Twitter.