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 at IslamOnline (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 andSheikh 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.