Indispensable IslamOnline Must Not Fail

April 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ramzy Baroud, Countercurrents.org

A widely popular Islamic website has been, until very recently, an undisputed success story. IslamOnline arrived at a time that millions of Muslims needed a common platform and a unifying outlet. Here was a website that neither shunned nor alienated. Its influence was upbeat and positive, rather than destructive or divisive. While it wasn’t an apologetic outlet, it reached out to patiently and progressively present Islam and Muslim issues to the world. These were understood and communicated by hundreds of scholars and qualified journalists, who toiled day and night from their Cairo offices.

Then something happened to abruptly bring the noble mission to an end. The success story suddenly became a terrible nightmare for hundreds of IslamOnline’s principled employees. The website (IslamOnline.net) remained online, but it was barely updated. Instead, videos were circulated on youtube, showing tired-looking IslamOnline staff chanting in the lobby of their building in Cairo. They were demanding the return of their editorial freedom and rights. They were calling for justice. These bright journalists, some of the finest in the region, should have been sitting behind their computers screens writing, editing and managing ‘live dialogues’ between inquisitive readers and learned scholars. Instead they were seated on the floor with signs and banners, shouting in coarse voices.

Something had gone horribly wrong.

Hadeel al-Shalchi tried to explain in a recent Associated Press report: “The Qatari government has forced out the moderate leadership of a popular Islamic Web site and plans to reshape it into a more religiously conservative outlet, former employees of the site said.”

According to the AP report, “The site was thrown into turmoil…when the owners attempted to change its approach, prompting 350 of its workers in Cairo to go on strike. Management in Doha then cut off their access to the site and have been updating it with news articles but not the diverse content IslamOnline is known for, said the former employees.”

IslamOnline is funded by al-Balagh, a Doha-based company. Al-Balagh was headed by well-respected Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a most sensible and judicious religious authority. He is known, and much liked, for his progressive views on Islam. Al-Qaradawi is also very popular among Muslims around the world, not least because of his daring political views, his strong anti-war, pro-resistance stances and moral clarity on many issues. In short, al-Qaradawi is the antithesis of religious clerics who would do as they are told.

A striking IslamOnline editor described to me how the crisis developed. It sounded something similar to a coup: the Sheik was removed from al-Balagh, the site’s directors were relegated, a new management was installed (in fact imposed), and even the website passwords were changed so that employees could no longer access it. Devastated and enraged by the unwarranted moves, about 350 employees went on strike – only to find themselves subject to legal investigation by some company lawyers for exercising what is universally accepted as a fundamental right. The editor tells me that they were harshly criticized in particular for their uncompromisingly courageous coverage on Palestine and Gaza. Indeed, IslamOnline had worked tirelessly to bring greater awareness of the struggle in Palestine, to Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

Following the tragic events of September 11, few websites have played the vital role that IslamOnline has. Its editors did not serve the cause of fanatics, with their dreadful interpretation of the world and themselves, and nor did they adopt the mouthpiece position in favor of Arab governments. Equally important, they did not try to falsify a ‘moderate’ position to please any government – Arab or any other. Instead, they truly reflected and genuinely expressed the views of mainstream Muslims from all walks of life, and from all over the world. It was truly an impressive feat to see such an independent editorial line emerging from one Arab capital and largely funded by another.

But it seemed too good to be true – thus the terrible, chaotic and devastating changes that brought this vital to a standstill. The very means of presenting an eloquent Muslim voice to the world has been threatened.

The story of IslamOnline is being presented as that between rival Arabs: governments, groups and individuals. Reductionist terminologies– such as conservatives vs. moderates – are once again permeating the often predictable Middle East discourse. Many questions still remain unanswered.

In fact, the story of IslamOnline pertains more to media freedom and editorial independence in Arab countries than much of the above. The struggle is between the self-serving politicking few, and hundreds of media professionals – brilliant and inspiring young women and men who made up the staff at IslamOnline. For them, IslamOnline was not just another job. It was a mission, a calling even, and millions of readers around the world appreciated their work, every word of it.
One can only hope that IslamOnline will find its way back, with its current employees and current editorial line intact. The success story must not be allowed to end. Individual ambitions cannot stand in the way of this rare generational mission that is now simply indispensable.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.

Repackaging Islamism

July 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Rafia Zakaria

Capture7-16-2009-4.06.06 PM

Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, projects like IslamOnline represent the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance.

The headquarters of IslamOnline.net is palatial building located on the outskirts of Cairo. Away from the dirt and unrelenting traffic of the bustling Egyptian capital, its shiny and brand new campus is located across the street from an equally palatial mosque. If you’ve spent any time in Cairo, the glass ensconced air-conditioned office of this Qatari-funded online empire can be a welcome respite from the desert heat, undoubtedly for both the casual visitor as well as the nearly one hundred Egyptian men and women who work here.

According to its publicity materials, IslamOnline strives for “an Islamic renaissance” and envisions itself as becoming the largest and most “credible reference on Islam and its peoples”. The website hosts a number of features from “news” to “politics in depth” to “family” and “art and culture”. A whole section is devoted to “Euro-Muslims”, even though the website is based in the Middle East; assumedly perhaps because much of traffic for the website comes not from Egypt itself but from Muslims living in Europe.

The technology is slick, the graphics trendy and the young, energetic staff quite committed to the avowed project of rebranding Islam. Words like “moderate” “diverse” and “plural” are recurrent in the vocabulary of the editors, used repeatedly to describe both their mission and their purpose.

These two facets of IslamOnline, its Egyptian staff and Western consumers and the conscious rebranding of Islam are worthy of attention.

Take first the savvy rhetorical repackaging that is insistent on the fact that the “Islam” it is peddling is both “moderate” and “diverse”. When questioned regarding what constitutes “moderate” Islam, however, the editors are resolute in providing synonyms instead of concrete responses. Ignored thus is the idea that diversity, in essence, stands for the representation of a variety of views that include the extremes, while moderation stands for a particular selection which avoids the extremes.

Also ignored is the reality that selecting what is moderate therefore inherently invokes a judgement and an interpretation regarding what is considered to be so. For instance, on the issue of hijab, the editors of IslamOnline state that the moderate position is that all Muslim women are required to wear the hijab; this is also, they insist, the “majority” position but the process of enumerating what a “majority” means, or why conflicting interpretations are ignored is again left unexplained. The same women who denounce the intolerance of Europeans toward women who wear the headscarf are thus unwilling to tolerate that a Muslim woman can refuse to wear one and still practice her faith.

This lack of self-awareness among the editors of IslamOnline and the self-described promoters of the “correct” and “moderate” Islam is disturbing given the stated aims of the organisation. It is difficult indeed to discern whether the editors and staff of this web-based dawa organisation are being deliberately evasive regarding their project of proffering a particular definition of “moderate” Islam or truly ignorant of their own role in advancing a project whose strings are being pulled by their financiers.

The geographical dynamics of both the headquarters of IslamOnline as well as the constituents of its staff add further complications to the question. 180 Egyptians, men and women, some commuting up to two hours each way, brave the heat and dust of Cairo to work in this air-conditioned glass building reeking of Gulf money. Sitting in neat cubicles, they collect news articles and fatwas for Muslims around the world, most notably in the West.

Their writings say little or nothing at all about the rising unemployment in Cairo, the blatant poverty visible on every city street, or the lack of political process in their country. In fact, these proximate realities, experienced undoubtedly by editors and staff, are all not represented in the conversation and largely the content of IslamOnline. In the deliberate divorce of these two realities then, IslamOnline, in the real and not virtual sense, represents outsourcing at its best: the relegation of dawa to Egyptian Muslims propagating an Islam envisioned by their Gulf financiers.

The disjunction is obvious not simply in the economic disparity between the largely Egyptian producers of IslamOnline, its Qatari backers and its largely Western consumers, but also in the avowed rhetoric of diversity versus its project of propagating the “correct” Islam. The Sharia section, which according to their own statistics is the most popular section of the website, is run by a doctoral student from Al-Azhar University. In his words, the process of compiling the “diverse” and “moderate” views espoused by IslamOnline stands for the effort to combine “authentic” opinions on various subjects from all four Sunni mazhabs. Shiite schools of thought fail to make this authenticity cut and hence are not represented.

A similar conclusion could be reached about the propagators of “authentic” Islam of IslamOnline; a document retrieved from IslamOnline reveals that nearly ninety percent of the sheikhs recruited to provide fatwas are Arab sheikhs with little or no representation for Southeast Asians, South Asians and Muslims from other non-Arab ethnicities.

In conclusion then, the Islam of IslamOnline stands for Islam as understood largely by Sunni Arabs. There is indeed nothing wrong with such a project; Sunni Arabs just like Iranian Shiites or South Asian Sufis have the right to propagate and disseminate information about their particular take on the Islamic faith. Indeed, there is something laudable and commendable also about providing Egyptian Muslim youth with a well funded and inviting workplace where they can interact and earn good livelihoods while living their faith.

The pernicious aspects of projects like IslamOnline lie in the unsaid agendas that undergird their stated goals. Calling a website “IslamOnline” instead of “MuslimsOnline” makes a very particular claim about representing a single and correct doctrinal position whose truth is substantiated by a particular interpretation of religious text. Disguising such a claim in the glib rhetoric of “diversity” and “plurality” while simultaneously excluding entire swathes of Muslim practice such as Shiite theology suggests a deceptive condescension toward both Muslims and non-Muslims consumers of the website.

In larger terms, projects like IslamOnline represent a novel new turn taken by the Islamist project that consciously seeks to redefine itself as “moderate”. Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, it represents the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance. This new and repackaged Islamism thus continues to privilege Sunni and Arab interpretations of Islam as ultimately authentic and correct but under the glib pretence of being committed to both moderation and diversity.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com.

11-30