FOX NEWS – the brainchild of the sullied media mogul, Rupert Murdoch – may have a high viewership in the US, but it does enjoy a reputation for being irresponsibly tabloid, anti-Muslim and crassly conservative.
So much so that TV host, Jon Stewart, once challenged Fox to a “lie off”.
So when Fox’s Johannesburg correspondent, Paul Tilsley, broke what he claimed was an exclusive story on ISIS in South Africa, I knew I would not be disappointed.
Leading with an unsubstantiated statement that “at least one South African a day” was joining “ISIS or Al-Qaeda affiliates to fight in Syria and the Middle East”, Tilsley claimed that Mayfair – one of South Africa’s most cosmopolitan suburbs – had suddenly become a no-go zone for non-Muslims.
Basing his assumption on a selective statement by the Iraqi ambassador, Dr Hisham al-Alawi, that two alleged South African ISIS fighters who’d died in Syria had come from downtown Johannesburg, he’d taken a crew to “clandestinely film” (his own words) a mosque in the suburb.
He did this instead of approaching community members or mosque congregants for comment, something that any credible journalist would have done. So when confronted by suspicious mosque goers – culturally some Muslims just don’t like photographs – he decreed that a whole Johannesburg suburb was suddenly hostile to him.
After having introduced his piece to camera by saying how many locals were flocking to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Tilsley comically ends up contradicting his original premise when he later quotes the Iraqi ambassador alleging that, at most, 300 South Africans could be in Syria. (For the record, community academics and Muslim clerics reckon the number to be less than 60).
Tilsley then makes a further unsubstantiated, melodramatic claim – that our security agencies have dedicated a special unit to combat South African Muslims being recruited by ISIS. This he does ostensibly to ratchet up his hyperbole to an Islamaphobic alarmism so typical of Fox – but thankfully – not typical of the South African authorities or the South African media.
Tilsley soon found himself under fire for his wretched journalism and got a rightful hammering on Twitter. Ironically, at the same time Tilsley was breaking his grand ISIS exclusive on Fox an Independent Group journalist, Yazeed Kamaldien, was in the reef town of Roshnee following up on the real story. Indeed, Tilsley was so bad he even got his town wrong.
Of course, the scenario of a small minority of local Muslims being desirous of joining ISIS is no secret. Even in Cape Town. Nor is it a secret that some have made their way to the war zones and have joined up with either ISIS or the Al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat an-Nusra. And again, it is no secret that eleven (including two children) have returned.
The truth is that it is a complex narrative – far beyond Fox – that chiefly locates itself in the small reef town of Roshnee, a close-knit community where gullible people, influenced by a local “recruiter”, performed what they felt was a holy migration from an un-Islamic abode to an Islamic idyll.
Their return from war-torn Syria via Turkey is still shrouded in mystery as their lawyer, Yousha Tayob, has fended off all our attempts to interview them and to find out exactly why they absconded from the Dawla, or the house of their dreams.
Tayob, who claims the families were not combatants – which would have made them prosecutable under the Foreign Assistance Act – asserts an ideological innocence on their behalf and that they went to perform “aid” or “humanitarian” work.
However, Tayob is unable to name any aid organisations or how the aid work was done. He doesn’t know whether the group followed aid protocols or not, and can’t say what children were doing in a war zone.
These groups of about 30 people, who reportedly went to Raqqa in Syria, were joined by a Port Elizabeth cleric, Maulana Rashid Moosagee, who was described in the Washington Post as a confused, apocalyptic ideologue by South African academic, Prof Ebrahim Moosa, who knew him as a student in India.
Space precludes a detailed explanation as to how a very small minority of South African Muslims (about 0.0015 per cent of its estimated 4 million) could be wooed by ISIS, but suffice it to say that their initial failing would probably be supreme naivety. ISIS runs a sophisticated social media platform expressing a glitter of optimism, assumption and bonhomie that belies its more sinister realities.
Even Omar Hussain, the former British supermarket security guard who complained that the Syrians had bad table manners and stole his shoes, has a blog that would be believable to the unwary. His give-away line is that Muslims must not perform the Hajj to Mecca until ISIS has conquered Saudi Arabia.
The basic ISIS call to the Muslim world is Hijrah, a migration the Prophet Muhammad did in the 7th century to escape persecution in Mecca. Based on this, Muslims are legally permitted to migrate from places of hostility to ones of peace.
ISIS – whose declaration of a Caliphate has been deemed totally bogus by Islamic jurists – claim that it is a religious imperative for Muslims to migrate to its territory. Sadly, too many Muslims around the globe have been seduced by this nonsense, and further claptrap about ISIS heralding the Armageddon and the coming of a Mahdi, an end-times imam.
In South Africa, where Muslims are arguably the freest of all minority communities, the idea of the Hijrah – or migration – becomes a parody of itself. For the migration here is in reality a backwards one. In other words, the person migrates from an abode of peace and tranquillity to one of war and social upheaval.
The point is that there is not a responsible Islamic scholar in South Africa, or elsewhere, who would ever condone such insanity. These are the voices that were so noticeably absent in the crude Fox narrative suggesting so blithely that thousands of South Africans were marching with bloodthirsty jihadis in far-flung Syria.