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South African media coverage of Muslims

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I am glad that Dr Auwais Rafudien, our Spring Seminar co-ordinator, has given me – admittedly a non-academic – some room for manoeuvre in his briefing. This evocative title, “South African media coverage of Muslims since 1994: villains, heroes, or zeroes?” is an ambitious one.

To tackle it “academically” would be a huge challenge, and enormously time-consuming. It is definitely the topic of someone’s future PhD.

So do not expect a forest of footnotes, op cit’s and ibid’s. My approach, therefore, will be unapologetically anecdotal. But before starting, there are one or two issues here that I need to highlight.

The first is that for a media in which Islam is accurately and fairly portrayed, our own journalists must be allowed to enter the profession through the halls of learning, language, culture and Deen. Theirs has to be a critical engagement, and they have to be prepared for it.

Without these values, inbred social prejudice, the power agendas and the platitudes of a community become the blindly entrenched values of the reporter.

Secondly, it is a world-wide phenomenon that newsrooms are being filled today with journalists who lack skills. Twitter, Facebook and MixIt in young hands are good for short-hand social networking and comment, but do not always provide the necessary in-depth context to the issues of the day.

My personal experience is that for young reporters the story is an isolated occurrence. In other words, their reporting is purely event-driven with no linked background, or understanding. The best example of this is when words such as “fundamentalist”, “extremist”, “militant” and the like are allowed to creep into the narrative without proper assessment.

Of course, there are mitigating reasons for this, not least of all the landscape of post-conflict communities such as ours where material survival and enrichment – rather than history, linguistics and education – have become the sole focus of a society.

Thirdly, we have to militate against what I call parrot-journalism. Media releases from slick PR companies, and smart party political media officers, are copied word-for-word in newsrooms and published without question.

In this case, when issues are not interrogated deeply enough they can often mimic the authority issuing the statement. For example, we get a wide-eyed reporter quoting – as unchallenged fact – that six million Zimbabweans (half the country’s population) have “flooded” into South Africa.

Or the lack of perception that sees a Muslim organisation – who has a woman telephonist – being allowed to declare that the woman’s voice is her awrah (something that should not be heard in public).

Fourthly, the worst kind of parrot journalism is embedded journalism. Zapiro’s cartoon of a US soldier in Iraq, his pants around his ankles, pleasuring a CNN reporter needs no further elaboration.

I have mentioned the above because I feel that we have to understand how perceptions can be formed in the media. As I have already said, the messenger is as much of the message as the message itself. It is complex, for sure. But as Muslims we are not exempt from the zeitgeist.

And fifthly, a heartfelt footnote: if you harbour any grievance about the way that the image of Islam might be projected, you need to consider that the message bearer – our community media – needs to be supported in all ways possible. We need to build institutions of expertise, and not to duplicate mosque committees.

Now, to the business at hand.

To talk about post 1994 media coverage of Muslims in South Africa we have to briefly identify what things were like pre-1994. It is important, because it is what provides the measure of things.

Interestingly, one of the first news stories I ever did (in December 1976 for the Cape Argus) was of ‘Eid ul-Adha and the qurban. It was a photograph with a caption and all Islamic terms had to be carefully explained.

In 1976 words like “’Eid” and “Ramadan” were largely foreign to the mainstream media. But in 2010 (some 34 years later) the Cape Argus with its second Muslim editor at the helm ran a feature on Ramadan, written by a senior Muslim journalist on its staff. No reader needed to know what ‘Eid or Ramadan was.

Then there is the moon-sighting. Three decades ago, the Three Anchor Bay moon-sighting at Sea Point was a small event. Today it is broadcast into hundreds of thousands of homes. It has been featured on Al-Jazeera. Even the SABC, which ignored it during apartheid, broadcasts news of the moon-sighting.

That, superficially, is how things have changed. We are now definitely, positively, “mainstream” in South Africa. But what are the perceptions? Have we been portrayed as villains, heroes or zeroes?

Pre 1994 coverage, as I have indicated, was through the lens of apartheid. Today, we are more assertive in public space. Democracy has permitted our voice to be heard. The lens has widened from a selective telephoto to a wide angle: we are now able to engage on a range of critical issues.

We appear on talk-shows as commentators. Our letters appear in newspapers. We blog in cyberspace. Nationally we have four Muslim radio stations (and two more with special event licences). Jumu’ahs, nasihas and documentaries appear on TV. We have two vibrant newspapers. There are no zeroes here.

However, long before 1994 – especially in the 19th century – most Muslim news coverage in the Cape centred on negative, zero issues, such as mosque court cases in the Bo-Kaap, and the Hanafi-Shafi’i saga of Shaikh Abu Bakr Effendi.

According to the Afrikaner Orientalist, Dr I.D du Plessis, we were a humble, quietist, working-class people. But, he added, we were given to occasional outbursts

Most of us were called “Malay”. And here is another example of how perceptions have changed since 1994. During apartheid “Malay” was regarded as a derogatory racial term, a total zero. Today the designation “Malay” is a status symbol.

Dr du Plessis’ cosy Orientalist bubble of red fezzes, “coons” and “koeksusters” burst in September 1969 when Imam Abdullah Haron was murdered by the security police. The Tulbagh earthquake, which I recall occurred hours after his passing, received more coverage than his death in detention.

But Imam Haron, a religious figure, broke the quietist Malay stereo-type and shattered Dr du Plessis’ paradigm, which had largely avoided examining the political awareness of the community.

Imam Haron’s death resurfaced in the public mind two years later when the Reverend Bernard Wrankmore, a white merchant navy chaplain, fasted at the Signal Hill karamat in solidarity with Imam Haron. His fast was widely covered in the media.

A villain image on our public radar, though, was when a Muslim cleric said that the Reverend was wasting his time. The Shaikh’s utterances, and the negative comments by a few other individuals, soured the inter-faith landscape. History was destined to repeat itself in the Desert Rose music controversy of 2010, which we will get to later.

Post 1994 South African media coverage of Islam has been subliminally influenced by several key international and national events: amongst them the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Palestinian Intifadah, the Soviet-Afghan war and 9/11.

Nationally, the 1985 uprisings, the Defiance Campaign and the awareness of organisations such as the MYM, the Call of Islam and Qiblah further informed the picture, albeit stereotypically in the mainstream. A big zero was a judge declaring during Qiblah leader Ahmad Cassiem’s terror trial that the Qur’an was a subversive document. This was before Muslims could use public space to effectively defend themselves.

The hinge events were undoubtedly 1990, when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, and 1994, when the country went to the polls.

The most surprising thing to me about 1994 was just how “normal” things seemed to be. Muslim politicians such as Dullah Omar, for example, were seen as being part of the greater landscape. There was more about them being South African Muslims in public life as opposed to them being Muslims in South African public life.

With the negotiations at Kempton Park, and the penning of the Constitution, South Africa did not appear to be concerned about negative perceptions of Muslims who were, anyway, now an enfranchised community. The support of President Nelson Mandela of the community – which was not always appreciative of this – cannot be underestimated.

I can remember him kneeling in the Awwal mosque in April 1994 when the Qur’an was being recited. It was an astounding moment.

In other words, South Africa was what Ebrahim Rasool and Tariq Ramadan would call a Dar ul-Shahadah – a domain of free witness. Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, Muslims were not perceived negatively. The South African media is, I feel, generally more sensitive and informed about Islamic issues than most other democracies.

Where perceptions have gone wrong is entirely due to the community itself (and its own obscurantist agendas), rather than conspiring alien forces or Zionist plotters lurking in the Fynbos.

A low point in 1994 was when Muslim Views (not under this management) refused to feature the Tri-centenary Celebrations on its front page. Over 100,000 Muslims – in the biggest march in Cape Town – had proceeded through the streets of the city in celebration of their freedom, and in remembrance of Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar, who had come here in chains in 1694.

This extra-ordinary event had made international news, but for the then editor of Muslim Views, a story on the Islamic Unity Convention had to take precedence.

Other negative issues, such as the imbroglio on Muslim Personal Law, the Halal comedies, the Hilal crisis and the Ahmadiyyah case have reflected more negatively on the ‘ulama fraternity than the community itself. This is an important distinction, and I make it without prejudice.

Take, for example, the Desert Rose controversy. It took a poorly worded fatwa, which read more like a press release on Voice of the Cape, to brutally censor Desert Rose – the music group focusing on interfaith relations. They had composed a song jointly featuring the Fatihah (the first verse of the Qur’an) and the Lord’s Prayer. Space does not permit me to further deal with the issue.

But suffice it to say that the public fuss was engineered by the same prelate who had shouted pox on Wrankmore decades earlier. He had boorishly interrupted a performance of Desert Rose in front of an international audience. Our judiciary’s inability to deal with the matter – after the press release-fatwa blew up in their face on the front page of the Cape Argus – again did not reflect as much upon the community as it did on certain scholars.

What did reflect upon the community, though, was PAGAD – a somewhat sinister acronym for a vigilante organisation (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) founded in the late 1990’s. After torching a drug dealer in a Salt River gutter, it lost its focus, and took the law into its own hands with tragic consequences.

Looking back at the clippings, I can safely say that PAGAD created more media coverage of the Muslim community than the previous 300 years. Most of this coverage was negative, definitely in the villain category, due to PAGAD’s disregard for the rule of law, its schizophrenic public utterances, and its attacks on ulama, politicians and journalists.

9/11 was an event that changed everything, although I believe its reverberations were not as severe in South Africa. Our women did not have to remove their hijab in the street.

However, 9/11 did create an international industry on terror analysts – many of them uninformed – on the issue of terrorism in Islam. In South Africa, a political scientist from Pretoria University, Professor Hussain Solomon, began to argue that South African Muslims were “terrorist friendly”.

With his findings as anecdotal as mine (remember he is an academic) he angered many with his emotional generalisations and sweeping assumptions, more motivated – it seems – by a conflict with the Jami’ats. Nevertheless, I can remember Ronnie Kasrils, who was Minister of Intelligence, telling a delegation of international academics that our community was not a threat.

Another focus on the community came via Ebrahim Rasool, former Western Cape Premier and now US ambassador. It is interesting to see how much media he has generated over the years.

Our most recent media issues have concerned the Prophet’s cartoon saga: the Danish controversy and Zapiro’s. Here I must confess to being in difficult terrain as I became part of the debate on the latter. However, in the first instance I think the court injunction preventing the Sunday Times from publishing was a zero.

The handling of the Mail and Guardian cartoon with Zapiro (and our alleged lack of humour) is another case entirely. Its eventual resolution – compromise and a better understanding of Muslim sensitivities – was a victory for the democratic process and reflected a praiseworthy generosity of spirit.

So, to the final question: are we villains, heroes or zeroes?

I think the most accurate assessment is the one made by the curate to his butler about his partly boiled breakfast egg. “It is good in parts, my good sir,” he said, tapping it pensively with his spoon.

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