The future of one of the largest Islamic Web sites in the world was in doubt on Tuesday 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 more than 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 Web site’s senior management in Qatar to wrest control of the site’s content away from its editorial offices in Cairo.
Insiders claim 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 Web site’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,” he said.
IslamOnline was founded in 1997 by the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular preacher who has previously been banned from entering the US 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 Web site 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 Web sites 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 criticized 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 Web site 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 Web site’s servers had been restricted.
On Tuesday, after hearing reports that many of them were to be fired as part of an editorial shake-up, more than 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,” the site’s new media analyst Abdallah Elshamy said. “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 Koran and the more reformist brand of Islam popular in countries like Egypt.
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