Trying to Understand IslamOnline’s Crisis

I’ve been horseback riding instinctively ever since I was a little girl. A year-and-a-half ago I decided to learn how to do it properly. One important thing I’ve learned is

IslamOnline employees gather around their lawyer on the 10th day of the strike

 that a relationship forms between horse and rider where there is a constant push-and-pull between the two; each trying to convince the other who is really in charge. While training, the half-ton horses have bucked, run wildly, and tried to throw me off. My role is then to show the horse that no matter what it does, I can hold on; I need to prove I’m a strong rider. Not only that, I need to bite back by pulling hard on one side of the reins and hurting the horse in the mouth to exert my control, otherwise it will continue trying to prove it’s boss.

After following the crisis at IslamOnline closely for the past 12 days, I think something similar to this analogy is happening between Cairo and Doha. I do not think it’s a battle between moderate and conservative Islam, as some would have us think. I do not think there’s a huge CIA conspiracy to eliminate moderate representations of Islam because “it is in the CIA’s best interests that Muslims continue to be seen as terrorists”; one possible explanation of what is happening at IslamOnline given by a worker on strike in the 6th of October building in Egypt.

From what I’ve seen, I think it’s a simple battle of one side showing the other who is in control; the sides being the Doha management at Al-Balagh Cultural Society – the legal owner of IslamOnline.net – and the Cairo editorial management of the IslamOnline website – the brains behind the content since day one.

The problem with this is that something in the range of 350 employees are caught in the middle.

I must be clear before I continue. I do not have any inside information on the current crisis beyond what everyone has already heard and read in the media. I have spoken with many of my former colleagues at IslamOnline and heard the sequence of events from them. I’ve also spoken on the phone with one of the Qatari board members involved in the current dispute. Nothing I have heard differs from what has already been said in the media.

I do, however, have the advantage of the perspective of someone who worked within the organization for eight years. During those eight years, I came to closely know everyone at the higher levels of the Cairo administration. They are like family to me. I also had the pleasure of meeting many of the Qataris; former and current board members of Al-Balagh Cultural Society.

As far as I am aware, none of the Qataris involved have over-conservative Islamic tendencies.

So What Is Happening?

One thing we’ve heard repeated by the Qatari side in the media is that IslamOnline has diverted from what it was originally intended to be.

A mistake the Qataris have repeatedly made is not explaining what they mean by this. And this leaves us to guess.

In my opinion and based on my experience with the organization, they could mean one or both of the following:

  1. In the website’s infancy, there were long discussions about whether IslamOnline was a da`wah website (preaching the teachings of Islam) or a media organization. The deputy head of the Qatari board at the time and co-founder of the website, Dr Hamed Al-Ansary, was of the opinion that IslamOnline was for da`wah. Eventually, however, the media aspect took over. How this happened and whether this was accepted by all parties involved, I do not know. I can only assume it was.
  2. IslamOnline started as an English and an Arabic website. Other sister projects then evolved, such as BiblioIslam, directed towards academics producing research papers related to Islam, and 20at, a website targeting Arab youth. In the past year or so, a rapid expansion of projects occurred. A satellite television station, ANA, was founded that focused on self-development issues. The Arabic website of IslamOnline also created several spin-offs; a website that focused solely on Islamic movements, another that provided academic analyses of events and issues in the Islamic world, and others that were about to launch such as a website focusing on development issues. Although this expansion seemed commendable from the outside, there were staff members, myself included, who felt that the expansion was happening too rapidly and in a way that was negatively impacting the original project: IslamOnline’s Arabic and English websites. One issue, for example, was that freelancers writing for the websites in 2008 were receiving the same amount of payment for articles as they had in 2000. When payment was increased, this happened only in a very minor way in 2009. Also, although IslamOnline started relatively early in the Internet revolution in the Arab world (in 1999) and it was one-of-a-kind at the time, it continued using almost the same technology base it had up until 2010. The result was that by 2010, IslamOnline was way behind the IT revolution compared to other media organizations in the Arab and Islamic worlds that moved onto the Internet. So although more funds were clearly pouring into the organization as a whole, they seemed to be spread thinly.

Understanding the Context

The Qataris have also publicly complained that the organization was accumulating unneeded human resources.

I agree.

Let me stop here and explain this a bit.

IslamOnline wasn’t run the way any ol’ company is run. IslamOnliners, what we’ve had a tendency to call people working there, are family. And the organization is very family friendly. Women who finished their three-month maternity leave, for example, were allowed to bring their babies to work and keep them at their sides. Some of those babies grew, walked and ran in front of my eyes. When IslamOnline moved to a new building in 6th of October in Egypt, it made sure to create a nursery for mothers with young children so that there was a way to stay close to their children and work at the same time. In Ramadan, many impromptu and pre-organized iftars brought employees and their families together. There were also many impromptu and pre-organized outings that included employees and their families. When IslamOnline moved to the 6th of October City, many employees moved their residences as well to be nearby. It’s as if many of those employees felt they would continue to work within the organization till the end of time; so where it moved they moved with it.

The loyalty to the organization went both ways. Just as employees were loyal to their employer, their employer was loyal to them. I can hardly remember any cases in which an employee was fired at IslamOnline. If that ever happened, it was rare. Of course, many employees left on their own accord for a variety of reasons. But this mainly happened at the lower and mid-management levels. In upper-mid management and upper management, staff has remained quite stable in the past years.  Sometimes it has appeared as if management has done whatever it can to keep some people on board even when they are not entirely sure where to put them. Other staff remained in certain positions even though it was clear they were not cut out for those positions. My understanding of why this happened in some cases is that management was loyal to employees who stuck with them for so long. They also did not want to be the cause of a loyal employee being unemployed. So they did their best to keep “homes open”, as we Arabs say.

It’s also important to mention that to many IslamOnliners, IslamOnline is not a job; it’s a message. This has also added to the loyalty many employees show to the organization and the upper management. They aren’t all in it necessarily for the stable salary or the comfortable working environment. They are in it because they strongly believe in the role IslamOnline is playing in portraying a moderate Islam.

This helps explain the position of many workers currently on strike. They are not only defending their jobs; they are defending the message.

Let me summarize how I see things happening:

A power struggle is happening between Doha and Cairo managements. Doha believes changes need to be made in Cairo. These changes probably mean some employees –

Qatar-appointed lawyer allegedly arrived on Thursday with employees' severance packages. He left without paying anyone a penny.

 maybe even many – losing their jobs and some projects being cut back or removed to refocus efforts on the original projects: IslamOnline English and Arabic websites. Cairo is full against these changes, especially those related to staff losing jobs in this difficult economic climate. The power struggle between the two administrations got out of hand and became personalized, with each party strongly believing the “truth” was on their side. An out of hand power struggle turned to an ugly power struggle, with both parties probably in the wrong.

And the employees got caught in the middle.

I was last at IslamOnline on Thursday, the tenth day of the strike. Employees were placed in a very difficult situation. They had to decide whether to accept severance packages from the Qatari administration and leave for good, or stay and defend the building for a potential future project. They were told that there were efforts to get funding – the funding even existed – for a project that had a message similar to that of IslamOnline. They were told by the management in Cairo that if they stayed and continued to strike, they would be given priority in this project. No further information was given; not that I am aware of, at least.

This logic concerns me. To me it appears to be a continuation of the previous management style that I do not believe was entirely successful: if you stay with me, we’ll find you a job one way or another in a project we’re still figuring out even if your skill sets and your numbers do not exactly fit our needs.

At the same time, Qatari management is continuing to fight back to exert its control over the situation: we’ll show you who is boss. The more you fight us, the more we’ll fight back.

The result is that some 350 employees at Islamonline are concerned about receiving their March salaries. They have no clear idea what to expect if they stayed for a potential future project with the current Cairo administration. The alternative is to start looking for a new job when this prospect was so far from many of their minds.

In the meantime:

  • Qatari management continues to “negotiate” the employees’ severance packages with no real end in sight,
  • Cairo management continues to talk about a potential future project with no real form or structure and a questionable management approach,
  • and 350 employees do not know what tomorrow will bring.
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17 comments

  1. This is so sad.

    I remember in 1999 when I first got interested in learning more about Islam, Islamonline was where I always went.

    This is all very sad.

  2. Sad, very sad. Now what will gonna happen to data’s which were accumulated for ten years? Any backup process going on?

  3. Nadia, what can I say? The entire time I was reading your post I kept exclaiming “Yes! Exactly! Bezabt!”.

    The critiques you made of the current management is exactly what I have been talking about with other IoLers since thursday after they held a closed-door meeting and later announced in the microphone that the managers of the new project would be the same as those of the original IoL. Why? Because the “new funding” trusts them! Just a day before they held a meeting where they promised that in the new IoL, funders would not interfere in hiring or editorial policies. Sub7an Allah.

    The problem is that the rhetoric being used now is one of “with us or against us” and everyone who decides to leave is being branded a traitor….Sigh.

  4. This is sad beyond belief. Islamonline was one of my favorite sites. Not everything I read there was to my liking but it provided an alternative approach and perspective.

    I have read IOL since 2001. I think it reached its apex in professionalism and excellence in 2007. I then noticed that many sections were removed and it seemed to lose its spirit. I also heard that some of its most competent staff left around that time or shortly thereafter.

    On my blog I write a lot about Qatari intentions, particularly since they own and run Al Jazeera.

    I believe mismanagement and arrogance led to this unfortunate series of events at IOL. I feel for the employees there.

  5. I’d like to quote Ethar:
    “Your logic is so very sound.”

    You manage to remain calm and rational even though it’s easy in this rhetoric to get emotionally charged. Very well-documented here, and put the light on the side we haven’t heard of before so much in the media – of the local management’s lack of vision for what they want to do about IoL in the future.

    Thanks again. Nicely written.

  6. Thank you very much for your deep analysis, however, I would like to point out to the real problem (from my opinion).

    The problem is that the Qatari management (and the consultation company) had some “change management” mistakes which led to this situation and caused both rational and emotional conflicts between the two Cairo & Doha, I will mention some of them:

    1- They started new development and assessment program with very low involvement of top management which caused no commitment nor buy-in from managers.

    2- They did not involve at all the middle management which caused great resistance to what is happening.
    and lots of destructive rumors.

    3- They did not adapt themselves with the IOL’s culture before starting the new change program.

    4- They were not transparent at all and did not announce the real reasons of the change which caused lots of rumors, lack of trust and accordingly, IOL staff were resisting rather than supporting.

    5- They were very slow in delivering the new change programs which caused the employees to be very tensed and frustrated.

    6- They practiced “Command and Control” style of Management which is disastrous in such an organization as IOL. They also did not respect the ownership of the projects.

    All these mistakes caused the employees to explode when they sent a humiliating message to their manager, Ustaz Tawfiq Ghanim, who resigned afterwards and then things went out of control.

    1. Dear Mr Ali,

      Thank you very much for your comment. And I agree full-heartedly that the Qatari management made very big mistakes in going about the “development” process the way they did. They also made some very bad choice about the people they chose to go about it. And lack of transparency on their part fueled the rumors and discomfort of Cairo staff. Thank you for your insider’s view on this. It is much appreciated and adds to the discussion and our understanding of the problems.

  7. Lahawla wala quta illa Billah…I’m so concerend for this to happen in one of our unique and rare Islamic Organizations. From my perspective as a specialist in HR Management, I can’t tolerat the fact that nothing took place at the beginnings to make sure that Cairo and Doha management teams are aligned to each other in terms of their vision and originally the reason behind starting up IslamOnline. Everything that happened later was clearly the result of that mistake. I’m so sad, and I wish if I can offer help to save this marvellous success story.

  8. As Wr Wb,
    What a tragedy, what makes this a more awful experience is that IOL has been one of the very few ‘free’ and ‘fair’ islamic sites where one could not only learn religion but also access a sound and balanced view on current developments. To loose such a potential is a big blow, as if the Muslim does not have more than enough agonies to shoulder. I tell you, this leaves me in a deep concern the same way my Palestinian brothers are under siege. I felt as if I lost my perspectives through which I would see the news, look up the vast archive on history, fatwa, family, politics… Oh Allah, I pray that He deliver us a swift measure where the Muslims can once again benefit from the site, ameen. I pray Allah to give the management to give ‘em the wisdom to decide what is best for the Umma, IOL, staff and all, inshallah.
    Fiamanilah
    Measelam

  9. I really think that the Doha and Cairo centers should come together and make a little bit of a compromise. I don’t see harm in expanding IslamOnline into more than just a dawah project; as long as all projects promote goodness, then where is the problem. I always use to go to IslamOnline to check the Islamic perspective on contemporary issues. I really miss that and I hope that IslamOnline will return soon!

  10. This is extremely sad. IslamOnline was my main source of information and inspiration on all things related to Islam and Muslims. It was an excellent resource of information and guidance.

    For several months I stopped visiting the website due to lack of time. Now, due to Ramadan, and because I have some more time I tried to visit the site and was shocked to see that the old site is not working properly and has not been updated.

    Upon Googling I found out about the conflict within the organization. Very, very, sad.

    Is there any official website representing the majority of the staff? I am now confused between islamonline.org and islamonline.net

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