City of Brass

This is a guest post by Dilshad D. Ali.

We here in the U.S. are holding our breath, living off of Facebook updates, Tweets, and email messages from colleagues in Cairo as to what is happening at the Islam Online offices there. On Monday, in a surprising and swift turn of events, a new board of directors in Qatar who were displeased with the tone and breadth of Islam Online’s content and coverage of controversial (and some may say not strictly Islamic) topics, seized control of the site’s servers and changed passwords, effectively locking out the more than 300 editors and journalists responsible for producing and changing its content on a daily basis.

Reports are emerging that more than 200 editors have tendered their resignation in protest and are currently fighting feverishly with the directors for their financial and employment rights. Some wonder why Islam Online has not put forth an official statement: Lamia El Sadek, part of the IOL team and the co-founder of the Islam Online support group on Facebook, posted that until financial and employment rights had been reestablished for the 330 Cairo newsroom editors and journalists and the 475 contract reporters and editors working abroad, they would not put forth an official message.

I wonder at if this is the right way to go, with blogs, media outlets and other sites scrambling to report the story from Cairo. Individual editors are making statements, but it would be helpful to have an official line about this. Still, even though the world has been made much smaller, speedier, and concise by the proliferation of internet journalism, I cannot make a qualified judgment on how the Cairo newsroom, who is directly affected by this the most, is handling this. It’s easy to sit here in the States and worry, pray, and get frustrated. But for those in Cairo, the width of the problem is far more expansive.

Many are suggesting that IOL editors and journalists begin a different site, that the thousands of readers of Islam Online over the years will flock to a new site staffed by the same editors producing the same quality and amount of diverse, useful, and important content. But as El Sadek said in a FB post:

“Right now we need to think of how to secure the rights of employees. Many homes and children will be affected by these incidents. People cannot be free to think of creative and effective solutions as long as they are worried about their future and paying the rent …

Once things become more clear and the rights mentioned above are secured (being worked on right now) then we begin to think of rebuilding our home and finding a better anchor for it to help us sail through the next period….”

Although the situation feels dire, people in upper management at Islam Online are saying that hope is not lost yet. It’s hard to know or be comforted by that. What is interesting to note is that after Islam Online began in 1997, it opened up an office in the U.S. outside of Washington D.C. to anchor its coverage in the States, only to shut it down a few years later.

I began freelancing for the site in 2000. In 2002 the D.C. office was shut down due to, as some employees from that era recall, a difference of opinion between how “Islamic” the content was that was being produced here. Said one former U.S. employee, “At one point [the Cairo management] had accused us, because we were American Muslims,[of] not being Islamic enough. But it was more than that: We tried to be objective, instead of toeing political propaganda, and they didn’t like that either.”

Since those early years when the site was figuring itself out, the direction and scope of Islam Online has evolved and the editorial pool has broadened to push for and promote the coverage of all Muslim-related news, topics, issues and the like. They don’t shy from controversial topics. If the past few years of coverage and push into foreign markets (including the U.S.) show anything, it’s that the site serves to spread news and information, not propaganda. And now it’s being shut down by the directors in Qatar for not toeing their editorial line.

In addition to her work at Islam Online, Dilshad D. Ali is a writer and former editor for This is the second post in a series of posts about the coup at Islam Online; see here for the previous entry.

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