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EGYPT: Moderates and conservatives battling over IslamOnline

March 17, 2010 |  1:11 pm

Smal320101619509Journalists and editors at IslamOnline.net, a website devoted to moderate Islam that has reported on such topics as homosexuality and Valentine's Day, are protesting what they say are attempts by the site's owner in Qatar to add more conservative voices and opinions.

IslamOnline's objectivity and moderate approach to covering Muslim life has earned it a strong reputation among millions of Muslims and others interested in learning about Islam. It attracts more than 100,000 users a day. Tensions, however, have intensified between the editorial staff in Cairo and the site's owner, Al Balagh Islamic Foundation, which reporters said was attempting to interfere with editorial content.

 "We started feeling that they (the owners) wanted to change the website into a new Al Jazeera channel, where everything published is directly censored and supervised according to the Qatari interests," said one wrote who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity. "We asked them many times to tell us what was going on because it was our right to know their intentions."

The foundation's officials could not be reached for comment. 

The staff for the Arabic and English-language website has been striking against plans to fire more than 300 reporters and editors and move the editorial headquarters to Doha, Qatar. The writers have staged a two-day sit-in at the Cairo office, refusing to hand it over to the owners. Additionally, IslamOnline workers started rallying for support by taking their demonstrations to Twitter, a live streaming blog, as well as a Facebook group.

"We, writers and editors of IslamOnline in Cairo announce to the whole nation that, unlike what some believe that we refuse to work,  we are being prevented from carrying out our duties," read a statement released by the workers on their Facebook group on Wednesday.

"We were surprised upon finding out that the server was locked and our passwords were changed by the management in Qatar, hence we can't publish any news or notifications. We are deeply saddened by the fact that we can't use our media weapon to report Israel's current brutal attack on Al Aqsa Mosque."

IslamOnline was founded in 1997 by Yusuf al Qaradawi, a controversial Egyptian cleric based in Qatar. One of the region's more provocative Islamic thinkers, Qaradawi skips across the spectrum between moderate and firebrand. The website refers to him as a prominent voice of moderation, but he has stirred anger in the West by supporting Palestinian suicide bombers against Israeli civilians and saying that American citizens in Iraq are combatants and should be targeted.

But through his influence IslamOnline covered a wide array of sensitive topics, including Islamic sharialaw, religious counseling, politics, science and art. The Muslim website was the first of its kind to discuss issues considered taboos in the Arab world, such as homosexuality and pornography. That direction seemingly chafed officials at the foundation in Qatar, who are more inclined toward the rigid Islam of the Persian Gulf.

"They are trying to change IslamOnline into a classic conservative website," said another striker. But the fact that they financially sponsor the website doesn’t mean that they can change its policies without getting back to us," another striker told The Times.

The striker said that as much as they want to guarantee their financial rights, they are mainly highlighting the 10 years of work they've given to the website, as they refuse to be stripped of an editorial vision they fought so hard to maintain.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: IslamOnline strikers. Credit: Al Youm Al Sabee.

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