Journalism: Islam Online goes offline

Sitting in (and standing up)

This week, on the 15th of March, I recalled the Shakespearean play “Julius Caesar” and posted on my Facebook wall, “Beware the Ides of March.” Little did I know it would foreshadow what would be happening to me in the U.S. and numerous other courageous and intelligent journalists in Cairo, Egypt. The rumblings came again, first, on Facebook, when I read the status of colleague Lamia El-Sadak’s that she was praying for Al-Aqsa and for Islam-Online. What was happening in at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (an Israeli crackdown) I knew. But what was going on at IslamOnline.net, the Muslim news website where I have been employed for the past three months?

I quickly learned that Islam Online was facing immense pressure from a new board of directors based in Qatar, who were moving to fire most of the 330 editors and journalists based in the Cairo office and turn the tone of the diverse moderate Muslim news and information website into one with a conservative, Wahhabi/Salafi tone. Editors in Cairo said there were long-standing tensions between the newsroom and the Qatar directors.

The site was founded in 1997 under the guidance of Egyptian cleric Yousef el-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar. It has numerous sections-news, arts & culture, youth, health & science, politics in-depth, reading Islam (for new Muslims) and others. In my experience of freelancing there for 10 years and working exclusively as their U.S. correspondent/editor since January, I’ve come to known Islam Online as a site that covers topics other Muslim sites don’t dare to address: marital issues, homosexuality, and child abuse. This, in addition to offering news from the Muslim world and fascinating arts reporting. When I came on board, the site was on an initiative to increase its coverage of Muslim-Americans, for which I was heavily involved.

To hear the abrupt and commanding way the Qatar board of directors swiftly locked down Islam Online’s servers and changed the passwords to prevent the Cairo editors from doing their work was a shock. The editors quickly used their skills and took their protest to Twitter and live streaming to rally support around the world. A Facebook support group quickly sprung up.

But the damage has already been done. My friend and colleague, Rasha Mohammed, the arts & culture editor who was visiting Islam Online’s fledgling Washington D.C. office for four months, was alternately defeated, hopeful, and angry in her talks with me. “I can’t believe they’re doing this. For more than ten years we’ve done this work. What we did meant something. People learned about Islam. We reported important news. And all of a sudden, this?”

Articles and sections are already being taken down from the site. Islam Online editors are telling each other (as Rasha told me) to print out their articles and take screenshots of their work before it’s gone. The contract between Qatar and the Cairo newsroom will be dissolved at the end of the month, I’ve been told. I’ve also heard that there are already editors hired and working in Qatar who is removing content from the site and putting up new content. Some of my editor colleagues at IOL have told me that the Qatari government probably had a hand in this – wanting to bring all control back to Qatar, as it has done with Al Jazeera.

In an article on Al Masryaloum, one striker stated that if the Qatari board of directors wanted a conservative website, they should’ve made a new one. “Don’t take over Islam Online and try and change it.”

I agree. Islam Online’s mission statement says that it aims to “present a unified and lively nature of Islam that is keeping up with modern times in all areas.” Changing it to reflect a Salafi/Wahhabi tone will no longer do this. Of course the mission statement will change, and that’s a shame.

At the end of the day, the Qatar board of directors pulled a Marc Antony on the Cairo newsroom of Islam Online (and those of us here in the States) by stabbing them in the back and putting them out on the street without fare warning or negotiations. Hundreds of talented journalists and editors are suddenly out of work. Beyond the job loss, they and I are ticked off that the work we’ve tried to do – present Muslim news, dispel misconceptions, end stereotypes, and expose important issues, is taken from us.

It’s a damn shame that an immensely important, moderate voice in the Muslim media has been abruptly silenced. As news editor Ayman Qenawi said to me in an email today: “The loss is huge. [Islam Online] was my first, not third, child. But we cannot say anything except alhamdolillah.”

In addition to her work at Islam Online, Dilshad D. Ali is a writer and former editor for Beliefnet.com. This article was originally published at the Beliefnet blog City of Brass.

About Dilshad Ali

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