City of Brass

City of Brass


Islam Online goes offline

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by Dilshad D. Ali.

Yesterday, marking that it was 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.



  • Willow

    This is tragic and shocking. So much for Qatar becoming the voice of free media in the Middle East…

  • Notforprophet

    There is no “moderate” Islam. Haven’t you worked that out yet? You will be classed as a “hypocrite” and “deceitful”, and the Salfists will put a fatwa out on all of you.
    Your only option is to be as hardline and fascist as the dictators who want to rule (and ruin) the world.
    It is your dictator leaders that are promising a war against the West, but it has to start at home, converting the moderate to a more fundamentalist line. Exactly what Hitler did with the Germans.
    Unfortunately, the British and the Americans will not see this until it is too late, and by then EVERY middle eastern person in those countries will become a target for hatred, irrespective of religion. This will whip up more hysteria in the Middle East Salafist press, and lead to the biggest World war ever seen.
    I used to think that maybe it would not happen in my lifetime but in my sons’, but I have been too optimistic. This war is coming within the next 15 years.
    Why is Islam being promoted in such a manner? You need to answer that yourselves, as it is you that will be the cannon fodder, not your generals – they will hide out in their caves

  • not amused

    I agree with the previous post, WWIII will occur primarily because of 2 reasons:
    1. A majority of the world’s Muslims are too ignorant to learn from history, and like most of us westerners must re-learn lessons the hard way.
    2. The west has become weak and spoiled.
    Tolerance is a crime when applied to evil.
    WWIII would have been best dealt with by a re-invasion of Germany and a good solid ass kicking of the Germans, again, in front of the entire world. Italy would have been too weak to be a threat, and Japan may not have had the courage to launch their first strike.
    This time around, I feel it will be necessary to make an example of Muslim barbarians in the way they understand the best: massive civilian casualties.
    Human nature is to blame. We are violent pack animals, stupid enough to willfully believe in superstition.

  • OldGirl

    I am so sorry for what you have gone through.
    No tyranny can rule until they control the press.
    It shows the incredible importance of your work.
    Thank you for fighting for freedom.
    No one is really free until everyone is free.

  • Your Name

    I do not know about the others, but I can guess why you are fired. It shows your lack of knowledge on the basics of Islam. Your use of words such as “Salafi” and “Wahabi” and stir emotions amongst the ignorant who have no knowledge of what they mean could only be described as ignorant at best or malicious at worst. The Islam bashing and cashing business is booming; I will not be surprised if I see your name on one of those hate websites.

  • author

    I would hardly say I’m engaging in Islam bashing. Salafi/Wahabbi-ism certainly have their place in this world and I am no judge of if that practice of Islam is bad, good, best, or whatever. I’m certainly not being malicious. The facts of the coup at Islam Online have been reported clearly; The board of directors in Qatar want a clearly conservative tone for the site — a Wahabi feel to it. They’ve said that, as it has been reported to me by the Cairo offcie. That’s their perogative to do so. I, and I suspect many of the other editors who resigned or were sacked simply were blindslided. The work on IOL covered vast grounds and numerous topics that go against the grain of what these directors want. Let them create a site with a conservative tone. There’s room for all voices. But why must an important one like IOL be silenced, and in this manner?

  • Notforprophet

    Author – you are being apologetic again to the hardliners. How can Salafi/Whabism have a place in the world when their goal is for world domination in the same manner that Mohammed undertook it: force, violence, warfare, rape, pillage, execution.
    How can anyone agree with that, it is merely fascism? It is not what any GOD would want, especially not THE ONE GOD YOU REVERE.
    The West is tolerant and weak. But there will be a large number of military people with their fingers on the buttons, and will be itching to use them. And there are plenty of us – the kafrs and the Crusaders and the Apes and the rest – who will all join together eventually and crush Islam if it continues its militant desires.
    Islam can push us so far, but only so far. But Islam can and will push you personally over and off the edge. The “moderates”, like all moderates, are unable to do anything and will go along with the flow, but that will mean they join the Muslim hardline.
    And then all historical record that there was IOL will be rewritten by those that win. Whoever that may be. There are plenty of suicide murderers in the Islamic ranks who are keen to kill fellow Muslims and innocent people who are already burning in the fires of hell.
    Will you do Allah’s work or Muhammed’s? Because they are NOT one and the same – God desires peace and goodwill to all, certainly not global domination by a particular set of nutters

  • not amused

    Notforprohet, you’re speaking logically to a person of religion. Remember, the author isn’t rational by definition. He believes it’s ok for his prophet to have sex with a 9 year old girl, because it’s God’s will.
    I’ve always dreamed of a sci-fi story where aliens arrive and start selectively sterilizing the world’s population. In time we figure out they’re breeding the belief in god out of the human race in order to save us from self destruction.
    Sometimes I wish it would happen for real. I’d love to see Osama Bin Ladin’s 50+ siblings unable to have children.

  • Yakoub

    Salaams – I’d like to add a note saying that IslamOnline’s education remit extended to the forefront of online networking, in the shape of its 3D Mecca in Second Life. IO have been central in educating SL users about Islam – for people not familiar with the online virtual reality platform, it is hard to explain the different quality of meetings that take place there compared to other forms of social networking. Ironically, the other major Islamic resource in SL is believed by some Muslims to be owned and run by US Homeland Security.

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