Hundreds of employees of the widely read Islamic news website Islam Online walked off their jobs Monday afternoon, plunging the organization into chaos and calling its future into question. As of Monday evening, several dozen employees were staging an angry sit-in at the website’s main office in 6th of October City.
The dispute, according to current and former employees, stems from long-simmering tensions between the website’s Cairo newsroom and a new board of directors based in Qatar. Striking employee Fathi Abu Hatab said the site’s new directors had been interfering in editorial content and seeking to alter the moderate tone and diversity of that content, which he says are the site’s signatures.
“They want to change the personality of Islam Online,” he said. “Even if you fund the organization, you don’t have the right to just change editorial policy without first talking to us.”
The website was founded in 1997 under the guidance of prominent Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Yousef el-Qaradawi. It has built a reputation for covering a diverse array of issues, in both English and Arabic, including advice columns that openly address sensitive topics such as homosexuality, marital issues, and pornography. The site is also known for employing non-Muslims and openly secular Muslims on its staff.
Abu Hatab said that Qaradawi, “made it clear from the start that this should be a website for all Muslims.”
A mission statement on the website said it aims to embody a “holistic image” of Islam and “present the unified and lively nature of Islam that is keeping up with modern times in all areas.”
That vision, according to Abu Hatab and other current and former employees, changed several months ago with a shakeup of the board of the Islamic Message Society, the Qatar-based NGO that funds the site.
The new bosses, Abu Hatab said, immediately sought to reign in the site’s scope and tone. That included scaling down or completely eliminating the sections devoted to culture and youth.
“They said clearly that they were going to change the editorial pages,” he said. “They want Islam Online to be an exclusively religious website.”
Abu Hatab recalls a particular point of conflict last month, when the new board of directors strongly objected to an article about Valentine’s Day that Islam Online had reprinted from a local newspaper.
Islam Online Managing Director Tawfiq Ghanem resigned two months ago, fueling fears among the staff that a large-scale purge of the 330-strong Cairo newsroom was imminent. Those fears only grew after the board took over control of the website’s servers. Finally, more than 270 employees signed a letter to the board detailing their grievances and demanding a meeting.
“We sent many letters to Doha, asking, ‘What do you want? What is your plan?’” Abu Hatab said. “They never gave us any answers.”
Finally, on Monday, executives announced that the contract between Doha and the Cairo office would expire as of the end of March. Most employees immediately walked off the job and spent the day staging a sit-in inside the website’s offices.
“Honestly, we’ve lost faith in the administration,” said Rania Ragai, who has worked at the site since it debuted in 2000. “Until now, we don’t know what they really want. Do they want to close us? We feel there is a hidden agenda.”
The dispute has played out in real time over the internet via Twitter and through a live online video stream set up by striking workers. With strikers chanting in the background, a steady stream of employees voiced their grievances before the video feed, with many saying they were fighting both for their jobs and for the website’s traditional character.
“If you want to found a conservative website, found one," said one striker. "Don’t take over Islam Online and try to change it.”
Several employees have openly urged el-Qaradawi to personally intervene in the dispute.