It seems the Islam Online saga is finally drawing to an end, although not necessarily the one hoped for by employees of its Cairo-based office.
Reporters for the influential Islamic news website went on strike three weeks ago, protesting the “unethical involvement” and “lack of transparency” displayed by their parent organization’s newly-elected board of directors. The Islamic Message Society, based in Qatar, had apparently been pushing the website–previously known for its moderate tone and tolerant views–in a “more conservative direction,” according to a former employee of the organization.
“The board of directors was not honest nor straightforward with us,” says Fathi Abu Hatab. “Instead of communicating with us, their attitude was ‘we are the owners, we can do anything we want.’ They don’t seem to realize that being financiers does not grant them the right to make editorial decisions.”
Apprehensive of the changes being made, employees of the Cairo office turned to Egyptian cleric Sheikh Youssef el-Qaradawi, who helped found the website in 1999 and has since remained a member of the Islamic Message Society’s board of directors. Insisting that the website would not be “hijacked,” Qaradawi did his best to reassure the reporters. However, the cleric’s words did little to calm the website’s staff. After several unsuccessful attempts at obtaining any explanation from their board of directors, reporters at the Cairo office were finally visited by representatives of the society–arriving in the form of an “investigation committee.”
“They [the committee members] obviously had their own agenda,” says Abu Hatab of the visit, which suspiciously coincided with Qaradawi’s trip to Saudi Arabia for a medical procedure. “We met with the committee; we tried to talk to them and even gave them our notes on everything we wanted to discuss. They acted like they were very interested,” Abu Hatab recalls. “But when they left, they didn’t even take our notes with them. They left them behind in our office.”
The final straw came when one newly-elected board member, Ali el-Amadi, flew into Cairo on a weekend, “knowing that there would be much less people in the office,” explains Abu Hatab. Accompanied by an IT engineer from London, el-Amadi acquired the Cairo office’s administrative passwords and promptly returned to Qatar, using the newly obtained information to restrict reporters from accessing the server. The incident left employees at the Cairo office furious and confused.
“[El-Amadi] claims he was acting as an owner,” says Abu Hatab. “If so, why sneak around like a thief?”
Subsequently, Cairo reporters staged a sit-in, held at their 6th of October city headquarters, which belong to Media International Misr–a Saudi-Qatari company independent from the Islamic Message Society. For a while, the strike seemed effective, with an emergency meeting of board members in Qatar resulting in the suspension of el-Amadi as well as Ibrahim el-Ansari–the two men widely believed to have instigated the whole controversial process of change. However, the decision did not last and following a series of murky events both el-Amadi and el-Ansari were reinstated. Most debilitating of all, however, was the sudden involvement of the Qatari Ministry of Social Affairs, which decided to remove Sheikh Youssef el-Qaradawi from the board of directors.
“It’s obvious now that there was a plan to move the whole site to Qatar from the very beginning,” says Abu Hatab. “Even Sheikh Qaradawi didn’t know about it, and that’s why he’s claiming now to have been betrayed.”
The board of directors’ objective, explains Abu Hatab, is to distance any non-Qatari funding and contributions. That, and the desire to present a more conservative outlook, as Abu Hatab repeatedly states. “The English section [of the website] has not been updated for a while because of the strike,” he says. “But if you were to go onto the Arabic section, which is now being written by newly-employed reporters in Qatar, you’ll notice the difference. They’ve removed several of our older columns and features and even the layout is more conservative,” he claims. “In one photograph, they even removed the heads of the women.”
While it is clear that the Islam Online painstakingly nurtured by the website’s Cairo reporters is no more, the controversy is far from over. “El-Ansari has been on Al Jazeera five times in the past week, stating that the issue has been settled and that the Cairo employees have received their settlement pay,” Abu Hatab angrily explains. “But they haven’t. In the meantime, we can’t get on Al Jazeera even once to state the truth, which is that the majority of us still haven’t received anything in terms of pay.”
“Our struggle was based on our jobs, as well as supporting moderate Islam,” Abu Hatab sighs.
Ultimately, though, despite the disappointment over the changes that essentially forced them out of a job, former employees of Islam Online have not given up on the vision that has been fuelling their work for the past decade. “We’re going to start a new project, a new website in the spirit of Islam Online,” Abu Hatab explains, claiming to have already received the blessings and promises of support from both Sheikh Qaradawi as well as Media International Misr, enabling employees the opportunity to pick up exactly where they left off–in their own offices.
“We will no longer be under the mercy of a single funder,” Abu Hatab says. “And it will reach out to the whole world, instead of limiting its scope.”
The as-yet-unnamed website is set to be launched within the coming two weeks.