memri
May 10, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 2941

The Islamonline Schism

May 10, 2010
Egypt, Qatar, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 2941

The Al-Balagh Society for the Service of Islam on the Internet, a Qatari association that owns Islamonline.net, recently decided to reorganize the popular Islamic website and to transfer supervision of its content and technology, as well as its administration, from its Cairo-based editors to the association's main headquarters in Doha. In response, some 300 of the website's Cairo employees who faced layoffs as a result of this decision launched a strike.

After interceding on their behalf, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), was dismissed by the Qatari government from his position as chairman of Al-Balagh's board of directors. The employees, in collaboration with Al-Qaradhawi, responded by announcing the launch of a new website that would continue the Islamic legacy already established by Islamonline.

Reports on the events were vague and in many cases contradictory, leading to speculation as to what, beyond financial considerations, had led to the decision to reorganize the site. According to one view, the changes at Islamonline were the result of a Salafist takeover of the website, aimed at disseminating views more extreme than those previously espoused by the website. Another interpretation is that the Islamonline split was a manifestation of the ongoing tension in Egypt-Qatar relations and their rivalry for status.[1] Yet another allegation is that the changes were the result of American-Israeli pressure on Qatar and Al-Qaradhawi to limit the website's content to da'wa, barring all discussion of politics – especially after the website had been identified as supporting the Palestinian resistance.

Timeline

Islamonline.net Reorganized; Employees Strike

The Al-Balagh Society has been a registered association in Qatar since 1998, and all of its members are Qataris. The association owns and runs Islamonline.net and several other websites, as well as the satellite television channel ANA, which was supposed to be Islamonline's television counterpart, but stopped broadcasting almost as soon as it was launched.

In February 2010, Ibrahim Al-Ansari, deputy chairman of the new board of directors of the Al-Balagh Cultural Society, announced that after a decade of running Islamonline, the association had turned to outside consultants, with the aim of improving the website. On the consultants' advice, he said, the society was now instituting a series of reforms in the website's administration, finances, content, and editing.

According to Al-Ansari, one of the reasons for the closure of ANA TV was that its programming was not in line with the Al-Balagh Society's views. Likewise, the board of directors was displeased with several articles posted on Islamonline that advocated principles which they did not endorse. As a result, it was decided that several employees would be transferred from website work to consultative positions; these employees were website general manager Tawfiq Ghanem, Arabic-language website editor Hisham Ja'far, and English website editor Muhammad Zidan. Much to the directorate's dismay, however, Ghanem submitted his resignation. Al-Ansari added that it had also been decided to transfer the website's center of operations from Cairo to Doha, but promised that there would be no mass layoffs.[2]

Later that month, some 300 of the website's Cairo employees reported that the Al-Balagh management had rescinded all their editorial privileges and transferred the editing of the website to the Qatar office – even changing the computer access codes and passwords so that they could no longer post content. Fearing the loss of their jobs and demanding an explanation, the workers held a strike at the Cairo offices, which as of this writing is still ongoing. They also sent a letter to then-board of directors chairman Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi requesting a meeting with the Al-Balagh management, at which the latter would clarify its positions and agenda; in the letter, the Cairo employees also demanded that their rights be guaranteed.[3]

Al-Qaradhawi Dismissed by Qatari Government; New Website Planned

Al-Qaradhawi consented to the employees' request for a meeting with the Al-Balagh directorate aimed at resolving the conflict between the two sides, and made assurances that the website would not be shut down. He suspended his vice-chairman, Al-Ansari, and director-general, 'Ali Al-'Imadi, from their posts, and suspended the implementation of decisions they had already made concerning the website's employees.[4] However, Qatari Cultural Affairs Minister Nasser Ibn 'Abdallah Al-Humaidi decided to dismantle Al-Balagh's Al-Qaradhawi-led board of directors and appoint a new provisional directorate under Al-Ansari and Al-'Imadi.[5]

Mahmoud Gum'a, a writer for Aljazeera.net, reported that following Al-Qaradhawi's dismissal, the former chairman was approached by striking Islamonline employees "with an initiative for launching a new, internationally funded website that would take up the same middle path that Islamonline had."[6] The employees' intent was to use the funds from the settlement they hoped to win from Al-Balagh to purchase a company they planned to establish to manage the new website.[7] Al-Qaradhawi expressed his support for the project, which would be called "I'lam Ummah" ("The Media of the Ummah") and managed under the auspices of clerics, authors, and researchers from Egypt and other countries.[8]

The standoff between Al-Balagh and the Islamonline employees continues; no final agreement between the sides has yet been reached.[9] Attempts by the Egyptian Ministry of Labor and Immigration have failed to bear fruit, and the employees have threatened to appeal to the International Labor Organization.[10] Since responsibility over Islamonline's content was transferred to Qatar, the website has been updated infrequently, and many of its pages have been blocked, including the shari'a, science, health, culture, and arts pages.

Speculation over the Cause of the Split

A. Salafist Discourse Takes Over at Islamonline

Several hypotheses circulated vis-à-vis the changes at Islamonline. Initially, it was claimed that the Al-Balagh directorate's new lineup led to a Salafist takeover of Islamonline, aimed at turning it into a website dedicated solely to fatwas and religious writings, while avoiding any discussion of social or political topics.[11]

Others alleged that Al-Qaradhawi's stay in Saudi Arabia while he recovered from surgery was exploited by members of Al-Balagh's board of directors, namely Al-Ansari and Al-'Imadi, in order to gain control of the website, relocate its administration to Doha, and restrict its content to religious topics while adopting a Salafist orientation.[12]

Yet another allegation was that the changes at Islamonline reflected an angry response by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated investors to the website's coverage of Brotherhood elections, to the posting of images of women driving, and to the website's tendency to focus on political matters instead of da'wa.[13]

Egyptian Journalist: Humanist Religious Discourse Hijacked by Stagnant Discourse that Goes Nowhere

In an article critical of the situation, journalist Samir Marques, an Egyptian Copt, wrote: "The Islamonline website was not merely a traditional media forum, but an intellectual project run with a great [degree of] media professionalism. For 10 years, it successfully presented the complexity and richness of religious, cultural, and humanist discourse open to the other. But as reported in the media, suddenly decisions were made by the website's owners in Qatar, one consequence of which was a threat to the future of 300 employees who had labored devotedly over the past decade... – and [then] the website was transferred to Qatar...

"There is a need for an extensive dialogue in order to understand and clarify why the humanist, cultured, religious discourse – aimed at revitalization, breaking norms, challenging superstitions, and upholding the individual within the Arab reality – is prey to hijacking, besiegement, or marginalization in favor of a stagnant conservative discourse that goes nowhere."[14]

B. The Islamonline Schism – A Manifestation of the Egypt-Qatar Rivalry

According to other speculation, the changes were intended to curb Egyptian influence in the website, as manifested by the fact that all of the website employees were Egyptian, and that it was Egyptian clerics who were represented in interviews and briefings, while Qatar merely supplied the funding. Thus, the intent of the Qatari management had been to transfer to itself authority in all decisions regarding the website's content, technology, and administration.[15]

Egyptian journalist Ahmad Taha Al-Naqr was among those who expressed this view; he wrote in the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar: "[The website's success] would appear to have stirred the animosity, jealousy, and spite of several Salafists in Qatar. They feel discriminated against, and are distressed by the fact that a group of Egyptians is in the forefront, as it should be, doing great service to Islam – even though Qatar gets the ultimate credit for [the Egyptians' success], since the website belongs to the Al-Balagh Society... The Qatari Cultural Affairs minister's decision to so shamefully dismiss Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi harmed the minister, his country, and the Muslim faith before it ever offended the venerable sheikh and great cleric... This decision was the final chapter in the scheme to hijack Islamonline and relocate it to Doha, after the arbitrary dismissal of 400 journalists, technicians, and [other] employees...

"The only satisfactory response to this insult would be the sheikh's honorable return to his homeland Egypt, and a decision [by him] to end his sojourn abroad in a country that does not recognize his greatness and which has become a hotbed for Salafists and for the spiteful and vengeful...

"This is a call to all those who care about the Islamic message of Al-Azhar and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and to all Muslims everywhere capable of bearing the burden rekindling the Islamic beacon which was hijacked in broad daylight. This is jihad for the sake of Allah, which takes precedence even over pilgrimage."[16]

Egyptian Writer: We Have the Right to Settle Accounts with Qatar

Dr. 'Omar Al-Shobaki, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also thought that the split at Islamonline was part of a general Egypt-Qatar rivalry. He wrote in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "The Qatari government's decision to dismiss Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi from the leadership of the Al-Balagh Society – which runs the website Islamonline – has resolved any doubts regarding Qatar's role in ruining the most respected Islamic website in the Arab world...

"The decision to dismiss [the Egyptian employees] annulled many Islamic terms [often] mentioned on festive occasions, such as religious fraternity and Arab and Muslim solidarity. But when we face reality, [we see instead] primitive conflict over interests and influence, completely detached from values. No one can claim that we have not recognized the values of Arabness, Islam, and global brotherhood, or that they are not part of our history and identity. But our miraculous ingenuity lies in the fact that we ourselves have turned the entire positive legacy shared by [all] the Arab peoples into a cause for fighting and cursing...

"This is what Qatar did with Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi and his website. [Qatar can] have media outlets everywhere, and act as a superpower, since the powerful [countries] in the Arab world have decided to turn their backs and avoid [taking] any action other than boasting of their greatness. But we have the right to settle accounts with Qatar, which is responsible for ruining a website respected worldwide and supported greatly thanks to its rare objectivity and professionalism...

"Qatar does not need a website like Islamonline, because [the website] is professional and objective, and does not align itself with any Arab camps or hidden agendas. The sad thing is that Egypt did need such a website, much more than Qatar..."[17]

C. American-Israeli Pressure to Stop the Website's Support for the Palestinian Resistance

A third take on the situation was that the changes at Islamonline resulted from U.S. pressure on Qatar or Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi to stop the website's support for the Palestinian resistance. According to this interpretation, a deal had been struck between Al-Qaradhawi and the U.S. government, possibly as the result of American Jewish organizations' pressure on Congress to approve a motion to either shut down Islamonline due to this support, or to add it to a purported list of organizations recognized as antisemitic. Under the deal, the website would either be taken offline or would restrict its content to da'wa only; in exchange, Al-Qaradhawi's name would not appear on the U.S. terror watch list.[18]

In a post on an Internet forum, Islamonline journalist 'Ali 'Abd Al-'Aal wrote: "Observers believe that an external agenda or plan is behind the destruction of this grand media structure, perhaps because of the role it plays in disseminating an Islamic message of moderation and because of its support for the Palestinian cause, its resistance, and its fight against Zionism.

"Observers have made the connection between the timing of Islamonline's shutdown and the Zionist offensive in Jerusalem [which was not covered by Islamonline due to the transfer of management to Qatar], just when it was assumed that the website would continue its news service about the Israeli violations on Palestinian lands...

"Although I am convinced that there are Zionist efforts, which have proven their effectiveness more than once, it is doubtful that they are behind the closure of the website..."[19]

A week after he posted the piece, 'Abd Al-'Aal reported that he had obtained new information: the U.S. had informed the Qatari government that if Doha fired Al-Qaradhawi from his position at Islamonline, and turned the website into an apolitical forum for da'wa, Washington might not pass the Jewish organizations' motion to take the website offline – thus enabling the website to continue its activity, albeit in a restricted format.[20]

Endnotes:

[1] Regarding Egypt-Qatar relations, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2258, "Egyptian Press Attacks Qatar," February 24, 2009, Egyptian Press Attacks Qatar.

[2] Al-'Arab (Qatar), February 17, 2010, April 17, 2010.

[3] Al-'Arab (Qatar), February 12, 2010.

[4] Al-Watan (Qatar), February 14, 2010, www.qaradawi.net, March 22, 2010.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 24, 2010.

[6] www.aljazeera..net, March 24, 2010.

[7] www.aljazeera.net, March 27, 2010.

[8] Al-Rai (Kuwait), April 1, 2010.

[9] www.aljazeera.net, March 27, 2010.

[10] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), April 8, 2010.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 19, 2010.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 19, 2010.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), March 23, 2010.

[14] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 23, 2010.

[15] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), February 18, 2010.

[16] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), April 10, 2010.

[17] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 28, 2010.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 19, 2010; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 23, 2010.

[19] www.mutawassetonline.com, March 20, 2010.

[20] Al-Emarat Al-Yawm (United Arab Emirates), March 26, 2010.

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