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Being anti-ISIS is not a licence for Islamophobia

Was it a case of bad journalism focusing on sensationalism, or was it driven by a rush to judgement despite lacking substance? I'm referring of course to the front page story in last weekend's Sunday Independent; "ISIS RECRUITS IN SOUTH AFRICA", screamed the headline, with a subheading which claimed that "Up to 140 have joined terror group, and three have died in combat".

My analysis of the report leads me to conclude that not only is it worse than merely bad journalism, it is misleading and irresponsible. Indeed, it reeks of Islamophobia.

Journalist Solly Maphumulo kicks off by ascribing the emotive adjective "murderous" to the Islamic State (ISIS). Hard news stories normally avoid mixing fact with the reporter's opinion. Even if it's true that ISIS is linked to some awful killings, the framing of adjectives by journalists defines their bias, as the story clearly demonstrates.

A number of core allegations are presented as "facts". They exemplify how blatantly distorted the report is by its failure to provide any evidence for them. I choose to describe the allegations and "facts" as myths; until credible evidence is provided, that is what they will remain.

Myth 1: "The murderous Islamic State (ISIS) is active in South Africa…"

Myth 2: "…and has been recruiting citizens to fight in Iraq and Syria."

Myth 3: "So far, three [SA citizens] have died fighting for the terrorist group."

Myth 4: "The Sunday Independent understands that up to 140 men have left South Africa to join the group."

Though the source of these "facts" is cited as Iraq's ambassador to South Africa, Dr Hushaim Al-Alawi, it must be understood clearly that diplomatic immunity doesn't extend to allegations made without proof. Furthermore, Al-Alawi has denied claiming that 140 South Africans have joined ISIS, so who is the real source for this dangerous allegation?

Take the proverbial fine tooth comb and go through the article; you will not find any other source named by Maphumulo. The only possible clue is his reference to the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), which released a statement early last week in which it called for an inquiry into the allegations.

This suggests that the original source could have been the ACDP, with the Iraqi ambassador there to provide sensationalism such as deaths being covered as motor vehicle accidents. Or Al-Alawi's fairy tale about an unidentified man attending Friday prayers in the company of an anonymous "friend" at an unidentified mosque in the Eastern Cape where a "speaker", also anonymous, used "inflammatory language".

It is hard to believe that this was featured in a lead article in a newspaper that since its founding has prided itself as a serious read, far removed from gutter journalism.

To reinforce the storyline's Islamophobic angle, readers are reminded of the so-called "White Widow", Samantha Lewthwaite. How does she tie in with the ISIS-SA recruitment story? Maphumulo fails to explain this. The only objective conclusion one can draw is that he threw her into the mix to add spice to his article, which lacks integrity.

Reading between the lines, it seems as if the hidden source may be none other than a deeply-wounded pro-Israel lobby, hell-bent on spreading fear and alarm about "Muslim terror threats". The ACDP is known to be aligned closely to the lobby. Shocking disclosures by City Press investigative journalist Jacque Pauw have exposed links between Israel's Mossad spy agency and the Israeli embassy for the dissemination of news about Lewthwaite.

Moreover, with such a structurally weak article, why has the editorial taken on a strident tone? All the myths cited above and the fact that Al-Alawi is not the original source, are overlooked in a scathing attack. In addition, it is unjustifiably and uncharacteristically alarmist by raising the spectre of bombs in taxi ranks, schools, shopping malls and places of worship across South Africa.

Being anti-ISIS should not degenerate into media reports that lack credibility. Such a stance against the group is not a licence for Islamophobia.

Iqbal Jassat is an executive at the Media Review Network in Johannesburg.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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