The anonymous parents sit in their Sydney home consumed with grief. They believe four of their sons, aged 17, 23, 25 and 28, have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State or one of the other groups battling each other and the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They’d been told by their oldest son he’d won a free holiday to Thailand and was taking his three brothers, one of whom had just finished his year 12 exams. The others had stable jobs.

The mother received a text stating the boys were now Syria and looked forward to seeing her “in paradise”. At fist she assumed it was a joke and deleted it. Now she believes it is real. The mother begs for her sons to come home. Who knows what she and other members of her family are going through.

Why did this happen? Assuming they have signed up for a militia in Syria, how did four young “cleanskins” become indoctrinated to leave behind loving parents, stable jobs and bright futures to join a war whose contours they might barely understand?

These are serious questions requiring serious analysis. Instead, what we have received is a chorus of fat jokes from the tabloids. The right-hand corner of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph front page carried the headline: “TOO FAT FOR JIHAD. Weight might stop Sydney’s would-be death cult recruits”. Page 6 carried the headlines “JELLY-BELLY JIHADIS” and “Sydney’s biggest losers too overweight to join IS cali-fat”. A photo is shown of a boy holding his head on his chin with his right fist while holding a half-eaten kebab in his left.

Two of the boys each weigh allegedly 140 kilograms and “can’t even run on the field”. A similar report appeared in the Daily Mail Australia, which cited a source saying:

“‘We are hoping the fact that because two of them are quite obese they will not good foot soldiers, they are over 140 kg. People are going to realise, what are we going to do with them? Are they going to eat al [sic] the food and you can’t even run on the field.'”

The source for the boys’ physical fitness or lack thereof? Dr Jamal Rifi, a GP who says he is a friend of the family. Is there any evidence that Islamic State will reject them? Any kind of statement that they are not fit enough to become soldiers? Nope.

I hope to God that the boys were playing a joke on their parents, that they return to Australia soon and that they make a fast buck pursuing defamation proceedings. No doubt that would wipe the tears off their parents’ faces.

Tabloid media discussion on these issues has tended to demonise not just those fleeing to Syria but the communities they leave behind. The same communities that more likely than not despise IS and other groups, which seem to have a knack for beheading more Muslims than anyone else. Now in the case of the four Sydney boys, the tabloids have resorted to ridicule. It might entertain the readers, but I doubt it generates much sympathy for the poor parents.​

Peter Fray

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