I found this article critiquing the theological course struck by the popular website IslamOnline. It’s worth reproducing here in full:
Repackaging Islamism — Rafia Zakaria
Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, projects like IslamOnline represent the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance
The headquarters of IslamOnline.net is palatial building located on the outskirts of Cairo. Away from the dirt and unrelenting traffic of the bustling Egyptian capital, its shiny and brand new campus is located across the street from an equally palatial mosque. If you’ve spent any time in Cairo, the glass ensconced air-conditioned office of this Qatari-funded online empire can be a welcome respite from the desert heat, undoubtedly for both the casual visitor as well as the nearly one hundred Egyptian men and women who work here.
According to its publicity materials, IslamOnline strives for “an Islamic renaissance” and envisions itself as becoming the largest and most “credible reference on Islam and its peoples”. The website hosts a number of features from “news” to “politics in depth” to “family” and “art and culture”. A whole section is devoted to “Euro-Muslims”, even though the website is based in the Middle East; assumedly perhaps because much of traffic for the website comes not from Egypt itself but from Muslims living in Europe.
The technology is slick, the graphics trendy and the young, energetic staff quite committed to the avowed project of rebranding Islam. Words like “moderate” “diverse” and “plural” are recurrent in the vocabulary of the editors, used repeatedly to describe both their mission and their purpose.
These two facets of IslamOnline, its Egyptian staff and Western consumers and the conscious rebranding of Islam are worthy of attention.
Take first the savvy rhetorical repackaging that is insistent on the fact that the “Islam” it is peddling is both “moderate” and “diverse”. When questioned regarding what constitutes “moderate” Islam, however, the editors are resolute in providing synonyms instead of concrete responses. Ignored thus is the idea that diversity, in essence, stands for the representation of a variety of views that include the extremes, while moderation stands for a particular selection which avoids the extremes.
Also ignored is the reality that selecting what is moderate therefore inherently invokes a judgement and an interpretation regarding what is considered to be so. For instance, on the issue of hijab, the editors of IslamOnline state that the moderate position is that all Muslim women are required to wear the hijab; this is also, they insist, the “majority” position but the process of enumerating what a “majority” means, or why conflicting interpretations are ignored is again left unexplained. The same women who denounce the intolerance of Europeans toward women who wear the headscarf are thus unwilling to tolerate that a Muslim woman can refuse to wear one and still practice her faith.
This lack of self-awareness among the editors of IslamOnline and the self-described promoters of the “correct” and “moderate” Islam is disturbing given the stated aims of the organisation. It is difficult indeed to discern whether the editors and staff of this web-based dawa organisation are being deliberately evasive regarding their project of proffering a particular definition of “moderate” Islam or truly ignorant of their own role in advancing a project whose strings are being pulled by their financiers.
The geographical dynamics of both the headquarters of IslamOnline as well as the constituents of its staff add further complications to the question. 180 Egyptians, men and women, some commuting up to two hours each way, brave the heat and dust of Cairo to work in this air-conditioned glass building reeking of Gulf money. Sitting in neat cubicles, they collect news articles and fatwas for Muslims around the world, most notably in the West.
Their writings say little or nothing at all about the rising unemployment in Cairo, the blatant poverty visible on every city street, or the lack of political process in their country. In fact, these proximate realities, experienced undoubtedly by editors and staff, are all not represented in the conversation and largely the content of IslamOnline. In the deliberate divorce of these two realities then, IslamOnline, in the real and not virtual sense, represents outsourcing at its best: the relegation of dawa to Egyptian Muslims propagating an Islam envisioned by their Gulf financiers.
The disjunction is obvious not simply in the economic disparity between the largely Egyptian producers of IslamOnline, its Qatari backers and its largely Western consumers, but also in the avowed rhetoric of diversity versus its project of propagating the “correct” Islam. The Sharia section, which according to their own statistics is the most popular section of the website, is run by a doctoral student from Al-Azhar University. In his words, the process of compiling the “diverse” and “moderate” views espoused by IslamOnline stands for the effort to combine “authentic” opinions on various subjects from all four Sunni mazhabs. Shiite schools of thought fail to make this authenticity cut and hence are not represented.
A similar conclusion could be reached about the propagators of “authentic” Islam of IslamOnline; a document retrieved from IslamOnline reveals that nearly ninety percent of the sheikhs recruited to provide fatwas are Arab sheikhs with little or no representation for Southeast Asians, South Asians and Muslims from other non-Arab ethnicities.
In conclusion then, the Islam of IslamOnline stands for Islam as understood largely by Sunni Arabs. There is indeed nothing wrong with such a project; Sunni Arabs just like Iranian Shiites or South Asian Sufis have the right to propagate and disseminate information about their particular take on the Islamic faith. Indeed, there is something laudable and commendable also about providing Egyptian Muslim youth with a well funded and inviting workplace where they can interact and earn good livelihoods while living their faith.
The pernicious aspects of projects like IslamOnline lie in the unsaid agendas that undergird their stated goals. Calling a website “IslamOnline” instead of “MuslimsOnline” makes a very particular claim about representing a single and correct doctrinal position whose truth is substantiated by a particular interpretation of religious text. Disguising such a claim in the glib rhetoric of “diversity” and “plurality” while simultaneously excluding entire swathes of Muslim practice such as Shiite theology suggests a deceptive condescension toward both Muslims and non-Muslims consumers of the website.
In larger terms, projects like IslamOnline represent a novel new turn taken by the Islamist project that consciously seeks to redefine itself as “moderate”. Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, it represents the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance. This new and repackaged Islamism thus continues to privilege Sunni and Arab interpretations of Islam as ultimately authentic and correct but under the glib pretence of being committed to both moderation and diversity.
Firstly, I think it has to be noted that Ms Zakaria is writing about the English section of IslamOnline, and not the Arabic section. The two sections reflect a relatively sophisticated awareness of market segmentation and consumer targeting common to other Islamic portals catering to users in more than one language. For instance, the English section, common to most Islamic sites in English offers articles and interactive services covering the major Islamic disciplines, with a particular emphasis on ‘E-jurisprudence’ or ‘E-fiqh’, whereby users can email in their requests for advice and a scholar will supply a detailed religious opinion (fatwa), which in turn appears under the Living Shariah section of the site. Users are also given the opportunity to email questions to various religious and political personalities, and the subsequent interview is then reproduced on the site.
Although there is rarely any overlap between the two versions, the Arabic site is far more sophisticated: reflected in both the quantity of material and the content. There is also considerably more emphasis on politics on the Arabic site, given that the political aspects of Islam are seen as affecting the daily realities of Arabic speakers across the Middle East.
One particular section that I try to visit everyday, is the relatively new Islamyoon dedicated site. This section, which includes daily articles on Islamist groups, Sufis and Salafists worldwide, has recently been expanded to receive its own site. It was something of an innovation, which is surprising really given the maturity of and contemporary interest in political Islam, in that it’s the only site on the net, to the best of my knowledge, that deals specifically with Islamism and its various manifestations.
Back to Ms Zakaria’s critique, which I think makes some perceptive observations about IslamOnline’s agenda. certainly, the site does promote an orthodox Islamic worldview, albeit couched in language more amenable to its English readership. The Arabic site mirrors its English counterpart’s weltanschauung and retains a youthful vibrancy missing from similar sites targeting the same consumers. There does appear to be a willingness to engage with the site’s readership and tackle challenging topics, especially those affecting modern youth – something which other sites seldom do (though they are learning!). However, don’t expect there do be any sort of Islamic reformist ideas given space there: topics such as advocating the freedom to reject the hijab or for a woman to marry a non-Muslim man are unlikely to be entertained on the site any time soon.
Ultimately, IslamOnline reflects the persona and vision of its co-founder, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawy. As an Islamist and long-time associate, some might say ‘spiritual leader’ of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaradawy cuts an imposing figure on the world stage as probably the world’s most popular and widely known Islamic religious personality. Particularly at home, in his native Egypt, al-Qaradawi is adored for commitment to Islamic moderation, what he terms al-Wasitiyyah al-Islamiyyah (الوسطية الإسلامية). And he’s never been one to shy away from controversy, as his ruling on the consumption of small amounts of alcohol bears witness to and the fact that, despite its bestseller status and its continued popularity today for download via the net, his book al-Haraam wa’l-Halaal fi’l-Islaam (الحرام والحلال في الإسلام) continues to draw criticism from conservatives for whom ‘permissive’ was the most complementary epithet ascribed to it, and who let to it being initially banned in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, despite his renoun for moderation in the Middle East, he’s somehing of a pariah figure in the West, especially in the UK, after his various statements on suicide bombing and the euphemistically-termed Palestinian ‘resistance’. To many Western non-Muslims, he’s an extremist plain and simple.
But when I say that IslamOnline reflects al-Qaradawy’s persona, I mean that it’s neither all fire and brimstone with regular calls for jihad or the persistent excoriation of the kuffaar; and neither is it a home for secularists and liberal reformers, such as those who advocate the separation of Islam from politics and radical reinterpretations of the Qur’an. No. IslamOnline is home to neither. Yet, it does to conform to al-Qaradawy’s Middle Way approach and has, as its mission, one of the Shaykh’s principal aims: the re-Islamisation of society from the ground up, a methodology first artculated by Iqbal and Mawdudi, those luminaries of nascent Hindustani Islamism.
I think it’s worth casting an eye over of the traffic data for IslamOnline, although it’s not possible, unfortunately, to get a breakdown of data for each sub-site (i.e. the English side and the Arabic one). This chart below shows the % of users per country (via Alexa):
More than a fifth of visitors to IslamOnline come from Egypt and just under one fifth come from Saudi Arabia. This means that depth of content is more likely to be skewed towards reflecting the interests of Egyptians and Saudis, who together compose more than 40% of IslamOnline’s audience.
Unsurprisingly, two Anglophone countries are in the top six: the US and the UK; IslamOnline is more popular in the UK, considering its population size relative to the US, and is home to the largest audience in Europe.
The chart below reflects the demographics of IslamOnline visitors:
We notice that IslamOnline visitors are overwhelmingly female, between 18-24 years of age, have children and are still at college (though just how many female college students have children is open to question). This demographic almost certainly has an influence on the content, given that there are special sections devoted to love and marriage, answering questions specifically concerning female issues and the tone and format of the site in the English section, which is notably more aestetically-pleasing to the female visitor.
So, are IslamOnline rebranding Islamism to appeal to the European market? Well, there’s no doubt that in terms of content, though the quality of some of the non-theological articles in both the English and Arabic sections leaves a lot to be desired, IslamOnline deserves its reputation and status as the web’s most popular Islamic portal, and its popularity with young women with children is so important as it will help instil certain Islamic values, the IslamOnline Islamist narrative if you will, in the minds of the next generation. However, I think it’s arguable as to whether there is a deliberate sleight of hand going on with reference to the English section: it’s clear, especially from those sites that cater to or try to attract non-Muslims to the fold (surely most Islamic sites?), that a different message is conveyed and specific aspects of Islam are emphasised with recourse to tried-and-trusted da’wah methodology. IslamOnline is not unique in this regard and it’s widely known that Shaykh al-Qaradawi helped to found the site and continues to have an input, so I don’t thin there’s a deliberately sub rosa Islamist narrative there. Notwithstanding my reservations as regards her global thesis, it’s a thought-provoking and timely article from Ms Zakaria.