Why we’re on Strike at IslamOnline

And here is another article written by my friend and co-worker Bibi-Aisha for the Guardian. You can read the original here.

On Monday, there were many on Facebook and Twitter who posted a reminder: “Beware the Ides of March”. I laughed at their superstition. But just as Caesar failed to see the betrayal by Brutus, so did we atIslamOnline (IOL) fail to see the treachery that would befall us on that portentous day.

We weren’t oblivious, nor ostrich-like; we were just trusting. When the new management at al-Balagh Cultural Society, the holding company in Qatar, imposed their dictates on IOL’s editorial tone, and issued guidelines for rather conservative content, the pluralistic body of staff balked at the editorial interference.

Pluralism was what had attracted me to IslamOnline. Impressed the first time I visited its website, I set myself a goal to write for IOL. It was my involvement with IslamOnline that transported me from science graduate to journalist.

Being sent to Lebanon on assignment after the July 2006 war catalysed my future. It created in me a desire to be a news journalist. In 2007, I represented IslamOnline at the Highway Africa conference, where IOL won in the category of Most Innovative Use of New Media. Networking at the conference led me to write for SciDev.net, and land my dream job at SAfm radio in South Africa. In 2009 I returned to Egypt, after being asked to start an internet radio station for IOL’s English site.

As a female, I feel honoured to work at IOL, where women sit alongside men in equality, and where travel opportunities for conferences are not the sole preserve of men, as in other Muslim organisations. As a managing editor, I’m allowed autonomy in setting my editorial agenda.

Heavy-handedness by the board led to the resignation of the site’s general manager and a Qatari, Dr Atef Abdel Mughny, was sent to preside over the Egypt office. Two hundred and fifty employees protested against the behaviour of the board, by signing a petition sent to both the board and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, under whose guidance IslamOnline was founded. A chill silence was the response.

A game of Chinese whispers ensued, with talks of restructuring and layoffs. A committee was sent from Qatar to deal with the concerns of employees. However, their presence heightened the speculation, especially after some lower-level staff were laid off. Insidiously, the password to the server was appropriated by Mughny, and the Arabic youth site was transferred to a smaller server. The purge spread, obliterating “luxuries” such as milk and toilet paper. A few employees resigned, afraid we’d all be consumed by the hunger for editorial control exhibited by the board.

Were the rest of us blind to the writing on the wall? No, just trusting. We believed in the soothing words cooed to us by upper management, who pleaded for calm. Since I abhor paranoia and conspiracy theories, I too dismissed the wild notion the website would be shut down; but anticipated downsizing. I thought IOL Radio would be the first to fall, since it was still in a fledgling state. My boss assured me this wouldn’t happen.

So, when we fell down the rabbit hole on Monday, we became cognisant we’d been duped by our own trust. The dominoes came falling down as we learned that Qatar had blocked Egypt’s access to the server. Then it was revealed that a contract – of which nobody seemed aware – between al-Balagh and Media International (which produces the website for al-Balagh) ends on 31 March and will not be renewed, and all employees will be released. The duplicity by Qatar persisted, with promises made to compensate those who resigned. They reneged on the deal a day later.

We vacillated between hope and fear, but never despair. A spirit of resistance reigned. Bound by unity, our hearts were also with those resisting the occupation of al-Aqsa. There were expressions of outrage and disbelief at our inability to cover the al-Aqsa clashes.

While others lamented the impending unemployment of more than 300 people, I also mourned for the loss of opportunity for freelancers worldwide. I had started as a freelance writer, and until this week I was living my dream of building up an internet radio station on a Muslim platform.

But it could all come to an inglorious end. Calling for more religious content, but behaving in this manner towards employees, is an insult to the ideals on which IslamOnline was built.

The clash between homogenous and pluralistic Islam is one of great importance. At IOL we make local news global, truly connecting Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. We offer content far more diverse and inclusive than that of other Muslim websites.

One defining chant rang out on Monday: “Where is Sheikh Qaradawi?” He finally answered the call on Wednesday, at the 11th hour. An emergency meeting was held where he revoked the decisions of al-Balagh’s general manager, Ibrahim al-Ansari, and his deputy, Ali el-Amady. Both were duly suspended and a Qatari woman, Mariam al-Thany, has been appointed general manager. But these are only interim measures; a meeting of al-Balagh will be held in two weeks where they will be put to a vote.

Meanwhile, the strike continues until we are given access to the website’s server and normality is regained.

We float in limbo. We can only wait and see what the final answer will be, and play our part in perpetuating the truths as we believe them to be.

Pluralistic Islam must win.


March 19, 2010 Posted by | Personal | 1 Comment

IslamOnline was More than a Job

This article was originally published at BikyaMasr.com. You can read the original here.

’ve only been working here for 4 months, but I’ve grown so attached to this place. I’m trying to fathom what it means to work somewhere for 5, 7, and some even 10 years only to find out that over the course of 24 hours that in a couple of weeks it will be gone. This is the state of so many of those working at IslamOnline, the most well-known Islamic website in English.

This week started off just like any other; on Sunday we came to work, we had meetings, we decided on the events we would be covering that week – Al-Aqsa, of course, was at the top of the list. Little did we know that by Monday we would all be out of jobs, and the project we were all so passionate about would be hijacked by people whose agendas we do not know.

We had been hearing rumors for over a month about new management that had recently joined the Al-Balagh organization in Qatar, the entity through which IslamOnline receives its funding, and were planning on making some “changes.”

Over the course of the past several weeks rumors abounded. We heard that for financial reasons the company would be restructured and that would result in mass layoffs. We heard that the new management was unhappy that the website was delving into issues like health, homosexuality, art and youth, and wanted the content to revolve totally around Islam. The woman that cleans the bathroom on my floor went to ask for a loan and was told she might not even get paid that month. They started cutting back on “luxury expenses” like milk and toilet paper. We heard they were Wahabis and were developing a new editorial policy that would go against IslamOnline’s current editorial policies. The current editorial policy can be summarized in the following statement:

Islam is a way of life and seeps into every aspect of a Muslim’s life, and thus, the site’s content should reflect that

We, the editors of IslamOnline.net and all its subsidiary websites, hold strong to the Qur’anic verse that says “Thus we have created you a community of the middle way” (Al-Baqarah 2:143). We are passionate about Islam, and we are passionate about the Islamic principle of moderation in all things. We are not here just because this is our job, we are here because we believe in this message, and we love this message, and we want to contribute to its being heard.

I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of IoL workers, from managers to editors to journalists to everyone else, has lived every minute in this company based on this statement. IoL is not a normal company. This place has so much heart, it really did feel like one big family.

After we began protesting on Monday, the first demand on the list was that none of us will leave until every single person gets there financial rights, and those whose salaries are less than 1000 EGP must get the equivalent of an entire year’s salary. There are workers that come and clean the building at night after we leave, people we’ve never seen, but we’ve been told they have no formal documents in the company. We are trying to ensure that these people also get compensation for being let go.

There were people that had been working here since the website started over 10 years ago. There are couples that met, got married, and had children while both worked here; and their children would spend the day in the daycare room. I can only imagine what those couples are going through now, after finding out that they are both about to lose their jobs.

We sent letter after letter to Qatar, asking them for more information, telling them what we’ve been hearing and asking them to show us the respect we deserve by informing us what’s going on. We sent a letter to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi that contained over 250 signatures from IoL workers, asking for the facts.

To make a long story short, a series of events followed that led us to Monday morning. It started off as a normal day, it’s time to pray the dhuhr prayer so we go to pray, and when we come back, we see that some workers have gathered in the entrance of the building to strike in protest against something we are not yet aware of. Word spread and we found out that Qatar had sent a committee currently on the top floor conducting some kind of business, the nature of this business differed depending on who you asked. The more information we gained about the committee, the more we realized how important it was for us to continue the strike. The committee made mishap after mishap, insulting major figures in the company, attempting to fire one of the strike instigators, and generally coming off as liars with no integrity. Towards the end of the workday, we finally learned what Qatar had known for months but refused to tell us: The contract between Al-Balagh organization and the other organization that own the building we were working in ends March 31st, and would not be renewed. Instead, all IoL operations would be transferred to Qatar, and all current employees would be let go.

During the sit-in, one girl stood up and told everyone that a gross violation is happening now in Al-Aqsa, and while IslamOnline would usually be a top source for Muslims to get coverage of this event, instead we’re busy with this committee from Qatar and we’re not even allowed access to the site. We should not forget that.

We are currently protesting for several reasons:

1. We want the financial rights of every single person in the company

2. We want the world to know that these editors and journalists and workers you see striking are the true voice of moderation. Without them, who knows what IslamOnline will be like, we are all praying that the voice of moderation is preserved. But if it is not, we want everyone to know that these are not the same people that have been running IoL for the past 10 years.

3. We are protesting against 10 years of effort and talent and experience that might quite possibly all go to waste in the near future.

4. We are protesting for the fact that they blocked our access to the server and have rendered us unable to cover what’s going on in Al-Aqsa.

We need the prayers and support of everyone that we can stand up again on our feet, without the help of Al-Balagh, and continue to voice the Islam of moderation we are so passionate about.

**Deena Khalil is a Bikya Masr blogumnist and work(ed) at Islam Online.

March 19, 2010 Posted by | Personal | Leave a comment

Al-Aqsa Under Attack

What happened in al-Aqsa today is scandalous and it just shows how low the Israelis are willing to sink. What do you expect when an entire nation is founded on the premise that they are chosen by God while everyone else is inferior? We the editors at IslamOnline.Net are dying to cover the situation there, but we are unable to as the management in Qatar has blocked our access to the server (more on that in the near future). In light of that, we have prepared a short collection of links to all previous material we have published related to al-Aqsa. Please circulate it. You can also see it at IoL Interact (the only site we still have access to).

al-Aqsa Coverage

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Personal | 1 Comment