Tuesday, March 16, 2010

IslamOnline website in crisis as employees in Egypt stage sit-in

Future of one of the world's largest Islamic sites in doubt as row escalates between Qatari managers and workers in Egypt

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - March 2010

The future of one of the largest Islamic websites in the world was in doubt today after hundreds of staff walked out, accusing new managers of trying to hijack the site in order to promote a hardline, conservative agenda.

IslamOnline, which draws over 120,000 visitors a day and is one of the most popular internet destinations in the Middle East, was plunged into crisis following an attempt by the website's senior management in Qatar to wrest control of the site's content away from its editorial offices in Cairo.

Insiders claim that the move, which would involve many of the site's 350 Egypt-based staff losing their jobs, is part of a broader effort by conservative elements in the Gulf to reshape the identity of a media outlet long viewed as a bastion of liberal and reformist voices within the Islamic world.

"This is not an issue of money," journalist Fathi Abu Hatab told the Guardian via telephone from the website's offices, which are currently under occupation by staff. "It's a matter of editorial independence and media ethics, and we are not going to back down. They are trying to hijack IslamOnline, and we are resisting."

IslamOnline was founded in 1997 by the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular preacher who has previously been banned from entering the United States and Britain.

Promoting a "holistic" vision of Islam, it offered Muslims a wide range of online guidance on political, family and social issues. With a reputation for including non-Muslims and secular Muslims on its payroll, the multilingual website quickly gained global popularity as a source for theological answers to questions involving everything from homosexuality to Hamas.

"When it was launched, IslamOnline was very distinctive and very different," said one former employee, who worked for the site for seven years. "Most other Islamic websites are quite dull and dense, but this one saw Islam as a way of life and offered practical help."

Most importantly, it enjoyed a degree of editorial independence from its financial backers, a welcome rarity in the Arab media world.

That independence came under threat last month when a new set of Qatar-based managers criticised journalists in Egypt, where most of the site's content is produced, for running articles on Valentine's Day and film festivals, and began to shut down sections of the website devoted to culture and youth. That put the site's board of directors on a direct collision course with staff, who soon found that their access to the website's servers had been restricted.

Today, after hearing reports that many of them were to be fired as part of an editorial shake-up, over 250 staff went on strike.

"We will all resign," said Abu Hatab. "They may own the offices and the URL, but they don't own us."

Workers taking part in the sit-in used a variety of innovative ways to air their grievances to the general public, including setting up real-time video footage from inside the offices and streaming it on the web.

"Those of us that stayed in the building overnight slept on our desks," said the site's new media analyst, Abdallah Elshamy. "But when we weren't sleeping we were also putting out a lot of messages on Twitter and other social media which kept the attention on us and eventually forced management to the negotiating table."

Analysts believe that the dispute at IslamOnline is part of a wider conflict between Salafist Muslims in the Gulf, who follow a more literal and traditional interpretation of the Qur'an, and the more reformist brand of Islam popular in countries like Egypt.

“If you look at the content of IslamOnline, it is relatively moderate and aims to cultivate an atmosphere where different perspectives can come together,” argues Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on political Islam at Durham University. “In some respects it embodies a new and very successful Islamic school of thinking, one that has promoted tolerance and discourse, and some of the more close-minded Salafists involved in funding the site feel threatened by this sort of discourse.”

The past decade has seen a series of flashpoints between conservative Islamic investors based in the Gulf on the one hand and Egyptian cultural institutions on the other. Egypt’s flagging film industry has been recently been revitalised with Saudi money but many observers believe that cinematic output has become more pious and restricted as a result; contracts for popular belly-dancers have also been snapped up by petrodollars, and in 2008 one of Cairo’s biggest five-star hotels caused an outcry when its owner, a Saudi sheikh, decided to make the entire premises alcohol free – reportedly emptying $1m of champagne and brandy into the Nile.

Al-Anani believes that if IslamOnline does collapse in its current form it will be a major blow to pluralism within the Islamic media sector. “There is an Egyptian taste to IslamOnline at the moment which is very discernible; if the site packs up and moves to Qatar the spirit and attitude of the site will change,” he says. “And that would be a big loss to the Muslim community globally, because we are facing a wave of Salafist media at the moment – on the internet, on satellite TV, and elsewhere – and IslamOnline was one of the key outlets resisting this trend.”

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