Contemporary Islam

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 283–309

Islam offline—living ‘The message’ behind the screens


    • Department of Culture Studies and Oriental LanguagesUniversity of Oslo

DOI: 10.1007/s11562-012-0227-6

Cite this article as:
Abdel-Fadil, M. Cont Islam (2013) 7: 283. doi:10.1007/s11562-012-0227-6


This article is an ethnographic account of the Social Section of Arabic language Islam Online. It focuses on what Krüger has called the ‘hidden knowledge’ of religious websites. Drawing on longitudinal fieldwork in the Islam Online offices in Cairo, Egypt, this article brings forth and analyzes rich data about Islam Online employees’ work practices and meaning-making activities. Drawing on an organizational ethnographic approach, this article highlights new aspects of this influential Islamic website. More specifically, the author employs Linde’s concept of an ‘institutional narrative’ to conceptualize and analyze the strong institutional identity and corporate values that are in play in everyday work practices. Focusing on key tropes such as ‘the message’, ‘professional’, ‘pluralistic’, and ‘pioneers’, the article demonstrates how Islam Online’s Islamist institutional narrative includes a creation story and set of organizational values that play out in the execution of work tasks. Moreover, the author argues that the objective of the emic concept of “the message” is to contribute to both self- and societal-reform in the Arab world, and that Islam Online’s own work environment represents a micro-cosmos of this ideal.


Online IslamIslamismEthnographyInstitutional narrative

You know the famous quote from McLuhan ‘The medium is the message’? Well, we at Islam Online, are our message. It is part of the context. The organization itself is ‘the message’ (al-risala)… practices “the message”. (K. Alkholy, speaking in 2009).1


While conducting fieldwork in the Cairo offices of Islam Online (IOL) in 2009 and 2010 I frequently heard talk of ‘the message’, that reputedly guided the organization’s work practices. As the weeks and months of fieldwork progressed, I realized gradually that ‘the message’ is a core trope that employees employ when expressing their institutional identity and going about their daily work tasks. One fruitful way of describing and analyzing what I encountered in the field, is Linde’s (2001, 2003), concept of an ‘institutional narrative’. According to Linde (2001, 2003) institutional narratives are constructed within organizations and function to strengthen ties amongst employees and ensure a common understanding of the purpose and identity of the organization. However, such narratives need not necessarily only originate from management. Linde (2003:1) maintains that institutional narratives constitute socially tacit knowledge and serve to:

reproduce the institution, reproduce or challenge the power structures of the institution, induct new members, create the identity of the institution and its members (…) We may understand this as the way an institution uses narrative to create and reproduce its identity by the creation and maintenance of an institutional memory.

In other words, an institutional narrative is a means of reproducing an organization’s identity, or what Campbell (2007) calls a ‘corporate ideology’. Becoming a member of an institution ‘involves learning the stories about that institution which everyone must know, the appropriate times and reasons to tell them’ (Linde 2001:3). Moreover, Linde (2003:4) contends that ‘narratives that are repeatable through time and across tellers’ particularly shape ‘the way that institutions remember their past and use that remembering to create current identities for both the institution and its members’. Put differently, institutional narratives may construe a common institutional memory, and evolve in response to events and across narrators, thus incorporating organizational changes or continuous development of tasks or values. The concept of an ‘institutional narrative’ is highly valid for the case of Islam Online as I came to know the organization through longitudinal fieldwork. Drawing on Linde’s theoretical insights, and my rich fieldwork data, this article seeks to describe and discuss Islam Online’s institutional narrative. I will explore the institutional narrative’s content and in what ways it informs everyday work practices. In this sense, this article discusses what Krüger (2005) calls the ‘hidden knowledge’ of religious websites, i.e., what happens behind the screens. My approach is ethnographic. It is my informants’ voices, worldviews, narratives, and emic conceptualizations that are in focus.

The case is one of the most successful and influential Islamic websites worldwide. It was produced and run out of Cairo for more than a decade (Gräf 2008; Hofheinz 2005; Hofheinz 2007). My research focuses on IOL’s Social Section, which is responsible for all matters related to family and society, and the online counselling service: Problems and Solutions (mashakil wa hulul). The Social Section is comprised of two teams: the Social Team (ST) and the Problems and Answers (PS) counsellors. ST members are full-time employees who have regular work tasks and editorial meetings in the offices, while most of the PS counsellors are called upon, on-demand, and need not conduct their e-counselling from the offices. I conducted fieldwork with the ST from the beginning of December 2009 until the end of June 2010. While I was conducting fieldwork with the ST, the ‘Islam Online Crisis’2 erupted. This was a zealous and dramatic dispute between IOL Cairo employees and the owners of IOL (the Qatari Balagh Society) about the content and management of IOL. The crisis resulted in a deadlock, with the conflicting parties reaching no agreement. In consequence, Cairo employees left IOL in March 2010, and formed a new organization and website called It is not my intention to discuss the IOL Crisis in detail here. However, in my analysis, the crisis contributed to bringing IOL’s institutional narrative to the forefront and initiated its further development, perhaps even in unexpected ways. The interviews and fieldwork episodes cited in this article refer to ‘IOL’, as the dialogues took place either before the IOL Crisis, or before On Islam was created.

A note on methodology

During fieldwork, I regularly attended ST editorial meetings as an observer, and shadowed ST members in their regular work tasks. I attended all editorial meetings with a mini-laptop and took observation notes throughout the meeting. I followed the meetings’ chronology and took note of all topics discussed. My main priority was jotting down dialogues, and verbatim quotes, using my own form of ‘short-hand’ abbreviations. I then (in immediate sequence) developed these notes into the full field notes that are quoted in this article. I also conducted qualitative interviews with ST members and a number of PS counsellors, some of whom were co-founders of this counselling service and IOL. These interviews were audio-recorded, and have been transcribed and coded in the software program Nvivo. In this article, I also draw on an interview conducted with Dr. Heba Rauf3 who was one of the co-founders of IOL and the Social Section. I conducted all interviews in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and translations into English are my own.

By virtue of being of partial Egyptian decent, in the field, I am neither fully an ‘insider’ nor an ‘outsider’ but fluctuate somewhere in between. I understand most cultural codes, but am nonetheless not entirely immersed in them. In addition, my research participants and I have overlapping modes of professional knowledge, since I have previously worked as a counsellor.4 In my view, my counselling background has been as important as being a partial ‘insider’ with regards to both facilitating my fieldwork, and the subsequent analysis. In this sense my study can be considered a case of what Hannerz (2004) calls ‘studying sideways’.

Observation in an institution can be considered an invasive research method, in that the research participants do not exert the same degree of control of what to say and do in front of the researcher as, for instance, in a one-to-one interview setting. On ethical grounds, I have chosen to camouflage my informants’ identities when analyzing episodes from my field notes that record my observations of ST editorial meetings.5 In contrast, I use the full names of the counsellors. This is because the counsellors in my sample are professionals with highly public roles and want their ideas to be attributed to them.6 The same goes for Dr. Heba Rauf7 and Kawthar Alkholy.8 I have chosen to also use the real names of the ST members who also function as PS counsellors. In sum, this research mixes the use of pseudonyms with real names.9

Structure of the article

This article sheds light on how IOL’s institutional narrative includes stories about the creation of IOL, the founding years, its institutional identity, its vision for society, and ‘the message’. First, I introduce the components of the institutional narrative; second, I discuss ST work practices and how they relate to the institutional narrative; and in the final section, I discuss and compare PS with the institutional identity and professed organizational values. Drawing on fieldwork episodes and interview data, I discuss how the institutional narrative plays out in everyday work practices. In this sense, this article also examines the relationship between the stories my informants tell about themselves, and what they actually do, in line with the organizational ethnographic approach as proposed by Ybema et al. (2009).

The creation of Islam online, its vision and its institutional narratives

‘The message’

The first time I heard talk of ‘the message’ was when I met with Kawthar Alkholy roughly a week before starting fieldwork, when she told me: “we at Islam Online, are our message. (…) The organization itself is ‘the message’.” At the time, I found this a clever formulation, but did not understand the significance of her words. A few weeks into fieldwork, I was struck by how often I heard further mention of ‘the message’. Intrigued, I asked my informants ‘what is the message?’ In response, the ST-members highlight ‘lived Islam’,‘Islam is life’, and ‘it is a lived message’. In their elaborations, they explicitly forge a link between Islam and living in modern society. Indeed, nearly all counsellors and ST members emphasized that ‘the message’ is related to ‘dealing with reality’, introducing a range of views, and draws on both Islamic and non-Islamic perspectives—a point I will return to. In addition, there is often mention of ‘the message’ being ‘balanced’ and wasat (middle-ground). The latter is a reference to their interpretation of Al-Qaradawi's concept of wasatiyya, centrist or middle-ground Islam.10 The aspect I wish to discuss in the present article is the objective of ‘the message’ or what ‘the message’ is held to achieve. For the most part, ST members and counsellors highlighted that the objective of ‘the message’ is to develop awareness and evolvement of both self and society.11 For example, according to Fatima, ‘we attempt to equip individuals with the tools to manage their lives and develop’. Salwa simply says ‘the end is producing positive behavioural patterns’. Dr. Nemat Awdalla elaborates:

The message, my message is to solve people’s problems and make them happy. But, I think that IOL was trying to spread social awareness. Instead of people each time they are in trouble saying ‘rescue me’, the idea was to spread awareness (…) Developing awareness.12

On a similar note, Dr. Mohammed Al-Madhi describes ‘the message’ as an awakening:

Yes, it is an awakening [nahda] of society, philosophical, educational, social, ambitions, expanding the rationality of people, improv[ing] their life skills. Very often we say that ‘we do not give a finished answer, but rather the skills to solve, how to think, the way to think, the way to think in order to find a solution’.13

In these quotes, one can discern that the goal of cultivating self- and social-awareness in individual counselees is interlinked with the greater goal of awakening a people. On the abstract level then, ‘the message’ entails societal reform. In other words, the objective of ‘the message’, is to develop awareness and empower individuals in the Arab world, thereby improving Arab societies. Providing a multitude of perspectives (pluralism) is an integral part of creating awareness as defined by IOL employees (Abdel-Fadil 2011b). An interlinked concern is the importance of ‘dealing with reality’ and discussing taboo topics. In Amani's opinion: ‘We discuss all sorts of topics. Nothing is off limits. We also discuss topics we may disagree with. But we believe in discussing why a phenomenon came about rather than sticking our head in the dirt’. All of these facets are part of the much talked about ‘message’. In the following, I will attempt to illustrate how ‘the message’ is the backbone of IOL’s institutional narrative, and is integral to my informants’ conceptualizations of why IOL was created.

Going beyond the muslim brotherhood—‘The IOL tone’

Ideas for creating IOL and the social section

IOL was founded in 1997 as a website intended to deal with all aspects of life, drawing on an array of disciplines, including secular sciences such as medicine and psychology. Indeed, according to Gräf (2008: 1–2), IOL founders believed that Islamic jurisprudence and theology, although important, could not alone provide sufficient knowledge in all areas of life. This certainly appears to be the case with regards to the ST and the PS counsellors. Their education is secular. Most ST members are trained as journalists. The counsellors are mostly psychiatrists or doctors with additional counselling training.

Two of the PS counsellors I interviewed, Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil and Dr. Ahmed Abdallah, were among the founders of IOL and the PS service. Interestingly, both Dr. Ahmed Abdallah and Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil relate how they used to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but that IOL’s broader focus on society better suited their convictions. For instance, Dr. Ahmed Abdallah says:

The MB was more suitable for my personality because I am (a) moderate (and) not (an) extremist. (…) Islamist ideology, is not enough, we need a broader perspective to deal with relations with humans.14

This ‘broader perspective’ is what came to be a cornerstone of the IOL website for over a decade. Furthermore, Dr. Ahmed Abdallah states that in his youth he was curious, that he ‘wanted to understand the world’, and gradually developed an interest in civil society and North–South discourse, amongst other things. It is in this context that Dr. Ahmed Abdallah says that he discovered that Islamic thought did ‘not go far enough’ or was ‘not broad enough to deal with the complexity of human relations’. This was his motivation for contributing to the founding of IOL and the Social Section and the further development of Islamist ideology. On a similar note, Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil says:

We were in a state of (self-) revision. We were Islamists (islamiyyin), but expressed our dissatisfaction with the (Muslim) Brotherhood organization. Our ideas, our expertise and views surpassed them (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood). (Our) talk was different … We were part of IOL, a domain for producing our thoughts about reality… Reform ideas. On IOL, Islam was presented in the way we thought of it… (an) Islam that deals with real life. It was my fate rather than a coincidence that I joined IOL.15

This emphasis on an Islam that deals with ‘reality’ and ‘real life’, is not specific to Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil alone. Indeed, in my interpretation, emphasis on ‘real life’ and ‘real life problems’ is a core trope in the ‘the message’, which is part and parcel of the institutional narrative of IOL, and later On Islam. This is also one of the markers of the type of Islamism that my informants identify with (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). Drawing on the work of Utvik (1993), Ismail (2006), Robbins (2009), I define ‘Islamism’ as the dedication to Islam and Islamic references as one of the main frameworks for understanding and structuring society, coupled with self-identifying as ‘Islamists’. While my informants do not articulate that they are working towards an Islamic state governed by Sharia', they do express a commitment to civic engagement, self- and societal-reform, couched in Islamic arguments (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). This brand of Islamism includes a reconfiguration of what Islam is: it is ‘experience near’, and rather than drawing on exclusively Islamic sources, this shade of Islamism seeks to draw on a broader platform of knowledge, including secular sciences, when interpreting and re-interpreting Islam. Dr. Ahmed Abdallah underlines how the creation of IOL represented something ‘different’:

Dr. A: We used to have a intellectual café, every week we had a meeting. IOL was founded in the end of 90s…. they were looking for someone who could create an Islam with a different image, a contemporary Islam. They looked for people who would be able to create just that. They found us as a group… The whole group: Hisham Gaffar, Hossam Din Al-Sayid, Heba Rauf, etc.—the founders of IOL. Inquisitive, openness … we agreed to deal with the world in particular way. The “cornerstone” 16 in establishing IOL, was that we created a different “tone”.

M17: What does ‘different tone’ mean?

Dr. A: A renewal “tone”, an open “tone” … A “tone” that does not enter into animosity simply because someone is different, a let’s see “tone”: let’s read, let’s listen, let’s understand, etc.

According to Dr. Ahmed, the intellectual café that he frequented in the 1990s created a specific cultural and intellectual atmosphere from which IOL emerged. Co-founder of IOL and the ST, Heba Rauf, makes a point of underlining that:

IOL is not only egalitarian and openhearted online. For instance, they do not practice gender segregation in the IOL offices. We share office spaces. Having men and women working next to each other in open office spaces is not problematic at IOL. There is a smooth communication and a feeling of brotherhood and family, you know. There is a relationship of respect … A third way between completely mixed and modern, and completely closed and conservative. 18

Dr. Heba Rauf speaks in the present tense but she is no longer with IOL. Indeed the fact that IOL is not gender-segregated is something that I heard referred to often during fieldwork. I believe it signals the important way the ST and counsellors conceive of themselves and their gender perspective. Moreover, much like other factors of the way they work, it can be argued that not imposing gender segregation is a micro-cosmos of the society they envision. The description ‘A third way between completely mixed and modern, and completely closed and conservative’ is also reminiscent of Al-Qaradawi's definition of wasatiyya as being neither too strict nor too lenient (Gräf 2009).

Babies everywhere and not all that electronic—the founding years

There was a time when you could see the shared offices filled with baby carriers placed on the desks, on the computer cases, under the desks, etc., or (babies) playing on their mats in a corner. It must have been quite a scene! But it was very important for these women to continue working at the time. I think there was a point after I left in which there was a bit of a struggle to maintain this praxis. I think some people in IOL worried that when people or potential sponsors come to visit at IOL and see babies laying around everywhere, that this may look unorganized or unprofessional. Some of the girls called me to complain, and I told them they should fight for this right. But in the end, I think allowing women to bring their children to work is good for IOL too. They are then able to keep young female workers, instead of them having take an extended maternity leave, and perhaps eventually resigning. And now in the new office in the 6th of October (City), there is a nursery for everyone in the building. This is very untypical in Egypt, you know; perhaps the first of its kind. And, as long as the baby breastfeeds there is no reason for the mother to stay at home. She can bring her baby to work (Dr. Heba Rauf).

This vividly told narrative of babies tucked away in every corner of the IOL offices is one of which I heard several versions while conducting fieldwork. As such, I believe it constitutes an important identity narrative, and could be understood as an elaboration of the institutional narrative. What does this story tell us? It makes explicit that women are valued employees, and that, with some adjustments at the office, they may continue to work after giving birth. What is significant about the narrative, in my interpretation, is the value placed on women pursuing a working career, to the extent that child rearing need not impede it. In religious or Islamist terms this is significant, for it is a far cry from very conservative views that deem women unsuitable for a public life outside the home. In this sense, the promotion of female employees can be considered as taking a position against more conservative shades of Islam and Islamism, such as salafism, which may advocate for strict gender segregation. During my fieldwork, I often experienced that both the ST and PS counsellors repeatedly identified themselves as something other than religiously conservative or salafis (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). Furthermore, the narrative casts IOL as progressive, being one of the first employers to provide childcare for female employees. Indeed, the encouragement of female employees and advocacy and practice of non-segregated offices, when taken together, reveal a great deal about the brand of Islamism and shades of gender perspectives in its repertoire. It may also point to what type of society they wish to fight for outside of the office walls.

One striking and perhaps surprising aspect of the founding years of IOL is that they appeared to be marked by a relative lack of digitalization. For instance, Dr. Ahmed Abdallah discloses, ‘In the beginning, we (counsellors) wrote our responses on paper, you know! (laughter).’ The hand-written counselling responses were then submitted by fax, and typed out and subsequently published online by an IOL employee. At the present time, to my knowledge, most counsellors type their counselling responses and send them electronically to the ST. Nonetheless, while conducting fieldwork in 2009–2010, I was surprised to learn that not all counsellors submit their responses electronically: some phone in their answers, with a ST member speedily typing the counsellor’s response. It is difficult to assess whether this is the result of some employees not being ‘digitally literate’ and thus lacking technological know-how, or whether slow internet connections or poor infrastructure discourage electronic solutions. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Interestingly, both Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil and Dr. Ahmed Abdallah mention that, in the early days of the website, they used to discuss their counselling answers in great detail on the phone, and at times ‘word by word’ before publishing them online. This pertains to building up a particular counselling school, which formerly could have been termed ‘the IOL tone’ in Dr. Ahmed words, or ‘the IOL language’ according to Hisham Abdelaziz (Abdel-Fadil 2011b), or classified as ‘the IOL culture’, by Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi (Al-Mahdi 2010). Echoing such interpretations, I coined the term ‘the IOL counselling brand’ (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming c). Now, in the aftermath of the IOL Crisis, this counselling approach is a provided by the portal On Islam. It is now perhaps more accurate to speak of ‘the PS counselling philosophy’, to signal the continuity and further development of the counselling approach that originated in the former IOL but is preserved on On Islam.19

Another intriguing aspect revealed to me about the founding years was that, in the beginning, the counsellors provided ‘foundational answers’. In Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil’s own words:

We got a wave of questions. In the beginning, we gave foundational answers. It was not necessarily the specifics of the question we were answering. For instance, when we got questions about “masturbation”.20 We explained: what is it? And, how do you deal with it in an Eastern society? … With a religious background, etc. We gave comprehensive answers and referred and linked to other sources.

In this sense, according to Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil the ‘foundational answers’ contextualized a problem, and placed it in a wider societal context. Thus, the ‘foundational answers’ appear to have been as much about relating an individual’s problem to overarching societal problems as providing guidance on how to deal with the actual problem. Hence, ‘foundational answers’ served to introduce the counsellors’ outlook and counselling philosophy which, in my interpretation, is intrinsically linked to cultivating social and self-awareness in the counselee and hence ‘the message’. It may well be that the ‘foundational answers’, as Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil suggests, presented the counsellors’ outlook in a very elaborate manner. However, in my view, similar goals are still in on the agenda for PS counsellors. Indeed, in my analysis, the link between a counselee’s problem and overarching societal problems still receives much emphasis by counsellors and informs their counselling practice (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). As will be demonstrated in this article, such concerns also inform the ST’s work practice.


When IOL Arabic started, it was a WOW in the Arabic world! It was interactive, and brought together many schools of thought in Islamic studies and issuing religious opinions (fatwa), not only al-Azhar or Salafi views, but from diverse schools as well as geographical locations. This diversity was intended. IOL Arabic made a breakthrough. (…) IOL represented a shift in Cyber Islam, bringing forth opinions and articles about various topics, not just [digital] access to the Quran and hadiths (Dr. Heba Rauf).

Here, Dr. Heba Rauf reflects on how IOL sought to provide diversified opinions on a wide range of topics and from various geographical locations, thus underlining the goals of versatility and pluralism.21 In effect, these goals can be said to be components of the ST’s institutional narrative and its core trope, ‘the message’. IOL’s ‘WOW factor’ in the Arab world, according to my informants, is derived from it being a pioneer in several respects. For instance, Hisham Abdelaziz highlights how IOL’s ‘message’ and multifaceted focus was innovative:

IOL was innovative with regards to how to link religion to life, to social life, ‘the message’, politics, etc. Everything has to be holistic. IOL (…) was trying to change something… a social movement… it was the opposite of extremism. 22

Here, Hisham Abdelaziz illustrates eloquently how the organizational identity is perceived of as holistic and non-extremist, and that ‘the message’ forges links to real life problems of the self, society and politics. In my reading, particularly the latter define(d) the former IOL and the current On Islam. Indeed, the institutional narrative showcases how the combined ideals of reforming society and the self take center-stage in much of everyday work practices.

As for reforming the self, I was often told that the PS counselling service was the first of its kind, i.e., that it was the first online counselling service in Arabic that offered counselees guidance from counselling professionals. In Abdel-Fadil (2012b), I demonstrate how displaying a plurality of views, opening up the vision, and seeing a problem from different angles, are intrinsic goals of the PS counselling service. In addition, counselling responses to complex questions often feature answers from two counsellors with differing opinions. Moreover, the counselling approach itself, the ‘IOL tone’ or ‘PS counselling philosophy’ appears to be IOL counsellors’ own adaptation of Western secular counselling models. This may support the notion that PS counsellors were counselling pioneers in an Arab context (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). Indeed, the ‘homegrown’ adaptation of secular counseling models to fit religious values, is commonplace amongst religiously committed counselors in other corners of the world as well (Onedera 2008; Zinnbauer and Pargament 2000).

In Dr. Mona Al-Basili’s words, PS conceptualized potential users of the service as those who identified themselves as ‘I’m not sick but I have a problem to solve’, and adds, ‘This was a new idea online’.23 This understanding of PS signals that counsellors, for the most part, do not take a pathological approach to counselees (i.e., consider users mentally ill), in addition to highlighting the novelty of the service. Moreover, nearly all of my informants believe that the anonymity of the internet facilitated the discussion of taboo topics.24 Indeed, the ST members and PS counsellors often emphasize that IOL employees were pioneers in terms of the topics discussed. IOL tackled a number of controversial taboo topics such as masturbation and sexual relations. Dr. Heba Rauf underlines that IOL was a pioneer and professional in its discussion of sexual relations:

(…) I think IOL’s writings about sex are educational and professional and we have an editorial policy. And IOL was a pioneer, the first Arabic website to talk about these topics, and Islamic one at that! Now, talking about sex is much more widespread with the rise of satellite channels. But I would say that 90 % of the approach, the ‘how to talk about’ these matters is inspired or borrowed from IOL.

This is a common sentiment amongst my informants. Moreover, a number of my informants maintain that IOL was subjected to critique for their boldness in discussing societal taboos and sensitive topics. In Dr. Heba Rauf’s words:

Some, especially in the beginning, used to get angry at IOL and said that it should not be called ‘Islam Online’ but rather ‘Secularism Online'! (Laughter).

Here, the critique appears to be that IOL was ‘un-Islamic’ since it discussed taboos and sensitive topics. One of the central narratives during the early days of the IOL Crisis in early 2010 was that the Balagh Society in Qatar (the owners of IOL) wanted to silence the ‘un-Islamic’ and far too ‘open-minded’ voices of the ST and PS counsellors, and refashion the website into a more conservative and literal Islamic direction (Abdel-Fadil 2011a). Yet, several of my informants remarked that, ‘the Social Section has always been controversial’25 for tackling societal taboos and addressing controversial topics. In my analysis, the critique of the social section was incorporated into the ST’s institutional narrative, and served to strengthen their raison d' être to continue tackling all sorts of sensitive topics. For, sensitive and taboo topics are a part of ‘reality’, and ‘real life problems’ both of which are intrinsic to ‘the message’ and purpose of the ST and PS counsellors. Indeed, the discussion of taboo topics appears to be an integral part of the way in which the ST and counsellors perceive their identity (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b). Likewise, cultivating self and social awareness are part of ‘the message’. During my fieldwork, in the weeks preceding the IOL Crisis, I observed first hand how the ST were ardent about creating awareness about societal taboos such as rape and incest, as will be discussed below.

Professionalism, autonomy and continuous development of ideas

A central tenet of the ST’s institutional narrative is that they are a professional enterprise. Before embarking on fieldwork in 2009, I had been researching their online ‘protocols’ and counselling essays about marital communication for several months. One of the aspects that both my research assistant and I were struck by was the standardization of protocols, despite the variety of authors. Protocols had a relatively set structure and employed the same type of easily accessible language and counselling references. During fieldwork I learnt that the ST were trained internally in the genre of writing a protocol, and were responsible for adding the final touches to protocols written by freelance authors. This is but one example of how the trope ‘professional’ appears to have mirrored the ST’s work practice. In fact, when the Arab media reported on the IOL Crisis, the high degree of professionalism amongst IOL Cairo employees was often highlighted, signalling that this narrative resounded outside of the IOL office walls (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming a).

Professionalism in the context of the ST often went hand-in-hand with perceptions of autonomy and division of labour. As discussed in Abdel-Fadil (2011a), the reason the ST and other IOL Cairo employees staged sit-ins during the IOL Crisis was to protest the Qatari board’s interference with what IOL Cairo employees considered to be their autonomy and professional editorial decisions. Indeed, the autonomy of each individual employee and section of IOL was something that I often heard about during fieldwork and in interviews. As will be demonstrated in this article, actual work practices support this narrative. Moreover, the autonomy and expertise of each individual or section rests on internal routines for professionalization. For instance, several of the youngest members of the ST (in their twenties) started out as trainees or volunteers, learning the ropes, trying out different tasks and then were later handed paid positions. Having a trainee system can in itself be considered a sign of professionalization and an example of how the institutional narrative plays out in practice.

In my interpretation, the ST’s conceptualization of their professionalism is interlinked with an understanding of themselves as innovative and in constant development. The status quo is very far from the ideal. In this sense, it is not just that the collective memory casts IOL employees as pioneers when they first started out, but the ST continues to strive to develop new ideas. Indeed, IOL’s mushrooming out into several sub-projects serves to illustrate this point. In Dr. Heba Rauf’s words:

IOL has succeeded in becoming an independent platform. And as for the enterprise, it is doing very well with regards to expansion. It has recently opened the counselling TV channel Ana (I), and a radio station. And, has a community on Second Life. But, now perhaps it is time for a substantial breakthrough content-wise. You know, in the beginning it [IOL] was such a breakthrough with regards to content. I think it needs a renewed “raison d’être”. There should be more independent reasoning (ijtihad), and new ideas and new agendas. What is there [content on IOL] is fine, but it could be developed further to respond to urging issues and pressing needs and expectations of new visitors.

Here, Dr. Heba Rauf mentions the multiple platforms in which IOL has established itself. She praises these efforts but claims it is now time for developing content. This perspective is in line with my analysis of maintaining a pioneer status, which I consider intrinsic to the institutional narrative.

My observations of the ST support the notion that they were constantly trying to develop their ideas and offer better services to users. This often entailed ideas of expansion to other media, much like Dr. Heba Rauf commented. For instance, during an ST editorial meeting, Samir says, ‘Live Dialogue’ could be developed further and is up for discussion (higher up in the administration). Perhaps they could add audio and visual to it? In a similar vein, the ST discussed using Facebook as an arena for Live Dialogue (Field notes, 24 January 2010). These discussions reflect not only how the ST often discusses features that can be developed further, but also points to the intersection of ST’s work tasks with those of PS counsellors.

‘IOL is an environment for developing ideas’, Hisham Abdelaziz told me. The fact that IOL Cairo employees kept on coming up with new ideas and implementing them led to a huge expansion of IOL and mushrooming out into side-projects such as the TV channel Ana, sub-websites like Islamiyyun, 20’s, IOL’s and presence in Second Life, etc., in the years preceding 2010. In many ways the institutional narrative casts the ST as a think tank, developing new ideas and always wanting to go further in their quest to contribute to social and self- awareness amongst their users. Yet how does the institutional narrative translate into the actual work practices and discussions? Do work practices merely serve to reaffirm the institutional narrative? Or are there other dynamics in play? This is what will be addressed in the following sections.

Living ‘The message’—everyday ST work practices

There are a couple of characteristic traits of the ST editorial meetings that I observed. First of all, editorial meetings had a relatively set structure. Meetings started with a personal round, in which individual team members could share their satisfactions and frustrations. The team leader would then provide important information, before the meeting progressed to deliberating on each individual team member's work in progress, tasks and area of expertise, which inevitably took place in the form of a dialogue. Moreover, team members who had attended any seminars or important meetings reported back to the team in an allotted slot. Secondly, meetings tended to demonstrate that the ST worked together as a team and had a rather flat structure. The team leader demonstrated soft management skills, encouraging each team member with a new idea to ‘try it out on a small scale and then evaluate’, rather than dictate tasks to team members (Field notes, 24 January 2010). Moreover, during the discussion round of the meetings, team members ran ideas for upcoming stories or protocols by one another before publishing them online. Thirdly, the interplay of seriousness and humor was never far around the corner. Fourthly, the dialogue between them demonstrates a high commitment to reforming society for the better. The following excerpts from my field notes illustrate a number of these points. On one occasion, the ST was talking about the lack of integration of children with special needs into Egyptian schools, and those at the meeting were critical of this tendency, with Samir saying that filtering out these children leads to ‘the creation of a “compound” society’, which is unfortunate (Field notes, 28 February 2010). In my interpretation, he is arguing for an inclusive rather than exclusive (“compound”) society, which ties in with the goals of social awareness, responsibility and acceptance of difference. The conversation then turned to schooling in general:

Salwa: You know the leader of one kindergarten says that what type of education you choose for your children should relate to whether or not you think your children will grow up and live in Egypt. I mean everyone knows that the ‘American’ (school) is not really American but that it can be useful if the children will move abroad, etc. But if your children are going to live in Egypt they should choose an education that will equip them to handle Egypt. You know, if the children are going to live in Egypt, they have to be tough and the child has to learn how to bicker, etc. (laughing). It is a refreshing perspective.

Samir: No doubt she is recommending government schools for children who will live in Egypt!

Communal laughter.

(Field notes, 28 February 2010).

Spinning off from the previous conversation, Selim highlights the importance of teaching children to accept others, and says that he wants to write an online essay on the topic. He shares his reflections thus far with the ST:

Selim: We also want to address the topic, ‘the acceptance of the other’. (…) It is a difficult topic to deal with… especially with children. I mean, there is hardly anything about this for grown-ups! (Laughter) (…) For instance, children who come home (from school) with negative ideas about Christians or Somalis… Children coming home with racist ideas. Like my son once came home from school and said, ‘I did this and that with him, and he is Chriiiiistian!’ You know, with an emphasis on Chriiiiistian (pronounced with distaste like eeew!). Where did he get that from? I want him to respect Christians. We are all people. We may be a little different but we are mostly similar. How do I convey this to him? How do parents tackle such incidents with their children?

Salwa: This topic could be a book afterwards.

Samir: Yes, yes. It will be practically ready to print as book (as it is).

(Field notes, 28 February10).

Here, Selim uses the example of his son and his own parenting to highlight the importance of debriefing children who come home with negative stereotypes through socialization in other contexts. Selim notes that teaching children ‘acceptance of the other’ may be particularly difficult in a society in which grown-ups may be suffering from a lack of competence or awareness of such matters. Salwa’s comment on it becoming a book is in effect a confirmation that the topic is important and well worth publishing as a book for that section of the public that is not online. Indeed, IOL has printed several books based on their online output (Abdel-Fadil 2011b). This dialogue underlines the values of pluralism and the acceptance of difference for the ST members. It is also an example of how the ST try to effectuate ‘the message’ through creating heightened self and social awareness about personal prejudices and racism in society.

The following dialogue exemplifies the process of selecting topics for protocols.

Amani: We would like to continue working on the series ‘What is wrong with …?’ (…) We have already run ‘What is wrong with marrying a widow?’ and ‘What is wrong with the husband saying sorry?’ We started out thinking that we would run a more extensive series of ‘What is wrong with’ so and so. Why not continue (with the original intention)? We could make a folder or a category with that name, with a series of links.

Samir: This is a good idea. The (Social) Team can work with this topic from several angles.

(Field notes, 13 December 2009).

This episode illustrates the close link between PS and the ST. The series ‘What is wrong with …’ draws on an analysis of common problems amongst married couples, extracted from counselees’ questions and counsellors’ responses. For instance, the protocol ‘What is wrong with a man saying he is sorry?’ is related to what the ST and PS counsellors consider to be a problem in contemporary society—that men believe it is ‘unmanly’ or ‘a sign of weakness’ to apologize. By running this type of protocol, the ST seeks to reform and challenge hegemonic concepts of masculinity and propose alternative constructs. This goal is one that several PS counsellors share and make a point of addressing (Abdel-Fadil forthcoming b), and relates to objective of ‘widening the vision’ of users and inducing change in individuals that may ultimately improve society.

Another fieldwork episode that demonstrates work practices amongst the ST is an editorial meeting that took place towards the end of 2009, in which the ST was reflecting on how it would summarize 2009 in its online output (an annual task). The participants discussed the trends in the PS of 2009, and in particular the complaints of husbands and wives and parents. What were the most common marital problems users write about in 2009? What were the most common parenting questions? What were the success stories of 2009? There was some discussion, of which the following is an excerpt:

Zeina: We can clearly see from the problems in PS (of 2009) that the users’ upbringing and socialization creates problems for them when they are adults. We could focus on that.

Selim: But, this is not a problem for 2009…. but a problem every year. I think we should discuss something special for 2009.

(Field notes, 13 December 2009).

This is an example of how the ST prepares for online publication by discussing topics in the team, and illustrates how team members do not shy away from giving their honest assessment of a suggestion. The following sequence also serves as a good illustration of how the ST discusses topics, exchanges ideas and participates in constructive dialogues during its weekly editorial meetings:

Nesrin: I have read through counselling questions on PS, searching for the most common patterns amongst victims of sexual assault. (…) They often end up either hating marriage, i.e., not marrying, or being married but ‘do not touch’, or being very inclined towards men. Also, one of the most common features is that the women do not recall exactly what happened, or the exact details, during the sexual assault. Nearly all of the assaulted were children at the time, and they are writing now as grown-ups, suffering from the effects. Another (common) feature, is that they describe surrendering and not being able to put up a fight, or being paralysed at the moment… Not being able to defend herself and then the feeling of guilt.

Amani: Yeah, the shock makes you numb.

Nesrin: Most sexual assault26 is by close relatives (maharim)27 when they (the victims) were children. Rape by a close relatives…The psychological effects today (years later) are feelings of self-hate and guilt. These (people) are counselled (by PS counsellors) that they are not to blame. Still, they (counselees) are afraid of their family…

Samir: Adultery among close relatives …

Salwa: This is not adultery among close relatives but rape by close relatives—there is a very important difference!

Samir: (Nodding) Should it be a topic on its own? I am not sure, what do you think, Miss Salwa?

Salwa: Yes, I think it is a very important topic and should be put in a folder of its own, or as subtopic of rape.

Samir: There was some work on close relatives a couple of years ago.

Nesrin: Ok, we could work with what was there, and add on. (…)

Amani: Family, victimization. Try to make more of a focus. (…) We could make an article addressed to those who feel guilty, and discuss psychological effects after being sexually assaulted as a child, how to handle this as a grown-up. (…)

Nesrin: The feeling of surrendering and not being able to resist and feelings of guilt… These things go together.

Salwa: What type of article? A discussant?

Selim: If it is possible to make it a “protocol” … if she can learn how to get rid of the guilt. That would be fantastic!

Samir: And the relationship to marriage (…) If she chooses to marry, how her experience of sexual assault affects her feelings towards the wedding night, fear of the wedding night and intimate relations, and how this can be overcome.28

(Field notes, 20 December 2009).

This dialogue is a fairly typical description of the way the ST members run ideas by one another before producing a text for online publication. The excerpt also points to the dynamic work process of the ST, how it begins by reviewing questions and answers in PS, and analysing patterns of repetition. Against this backdrop, the members discuss what type of output or genre they wish to publish, and from which angles to approach the topics at hand. In this dialogue, the ST also discusses which of the counsellors to invite to write about various topics, and discusses the counsellors’ differing expertise and skills, in order to select the appropriate author for the desired angle. The excerpt demonstrates that although the ST are united in their goal of creating awareness about stigmatized groups (here victims of rape and incest), there is nonetheless a real display of differing opinions in the discussion. This is best illustrated when Salwa corrects Samir and says, ‘This is not adultery amongst close relatives but rape by close relatives—there is a very important difference!’ This dialogue also serves as an example of how the ST is committed to dealing with and creating awareness ‘real life problems’ despite their taboo nature, which in my interpretation is an inherent part of ‘the message’. Of course, both rape and incest are difficult taboo topics to discuss in most cultural settings. However, discussing these topics in the Arab world may be particularly delicate, considering hegemonic ideas about sexual propriety and shame. One could also infer that here the ST members also discuss crime and unlawful acts, and thereby underline the importance of righteous conduct. However, the focus of the ST in this context, was not on the perpetrators and crime but rather, on the psychological effects of the victims of sexual assault and incest, and providing victims with tools and knowledge that could help them heal from their traumatic experiences.

During the next editorial meeting, the ST continued to discuss its work on victims of rape:

Nouran: Recently, on Wednesday, we published the case on The Victims of Rape Association. It has been published and we are expecting some response, you know.

Samir: Yes. We have to follow the comments from visitors. Someone commented that it is a very important topic and that he is very interested in talking to these people who have experienced rape. He asked for them to contact him on his email and wrote his email address. I have of course deleted this comment.

A mixture of shock and distressed laughter at the absurdity and gravity of this comment moves around the table, myself included.

Samir: (…) We have to be more aware, and do more monitoring of the comments.

A technical discussion of how to monitor the comments follows.

(Field notes, 24 January 2010).

This dialogue refers to a disturbing comment that was posted by an IOL user. My interpretation coincides with that of the ST. This comment addressed to victims of rape appears to be an attempt to exploit such women. Although this is an extreme example of an unsuitable comment, it does illustrate a problem that El-Nawawy and Khamis (2009) highlight in their discussions of IOL’s (and other Islamic websites’) discussion forums. In their analysis, the lack of moderation of comments in discussion forums is problematic, especially because the comments at times are antagonistic or full of foul language.

User comments is one of the areas on which ST members do not see eye to eye. As it is, not all topics or counselling sessions are open for comments. Still, even with this in mind, some ST members such as Zeina are highly critical of allowing users to comment on counselling sessions. In contrast, others such as Samir hold the view that user comments are important because in essence ‘everybody is a counsellor or has advice to share’. It is precisely this that frustrates Zeina: ‘Some people use comments to share very bad advice that may contradict the counsellor’s professional response’ (Field notes, 24 January 2010). So in Zeina’s view not all users are qualified or well suited for counselling. While in some ways these disagreements can take the form of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to user comments, a compromise between the two extremes is to allow for comments but with regular moderation. Those in the ‘no camp’ are willing to settle for such a compromise. Still, it is evident that they do not deem the current level of moderation sufficient.

In effect, these disagreements and stances mirror the varying perspectives on user comments amongst the PS counsellors as well. Dr. Amira Badran tells me she is renowned for her criticism of user comments, and mentions a case where a counselee who had sexually assaulted a girl was trying to make amends and come to terms with what he had done. She had counselled him in an encouraging manner, and then he was attacked by users who called him all sorts of horrible things. ‘This is an attack on a user who is repenting, you know,’ Dr. Amira Badran exclaims before adding, ‘at least there has to be filtering of comments’.29 Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi, on the other hand, represents the opposite argument, stating ‘Amongst the users there are some brilliant minds… better than the counsellor even! (laughter)’. With my own counselling background in mind, instinctively, I am inclined to interpret the stances of Samir and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi as ‘idealized’ in the sense that I too believe that not all user comments are either eloquent or suitable, and at worst some comments may even be harmful for the counselee. Indeed, El-Nawawy and Khamis’s (2009) research of discussion forums on Islamic websites is discouraging in this regard. However, it is important to note that Samir and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi are not just idealizing user comments. First of all, they are fully aware of the fact that some user comments are not all that helpful. Secondly, and more importantly, they consider the good comments well worth the enterprise of allowing for user comments. In consequence some ST members and counsellors actually follow user comments scouting for counselling talent. Indeed, some PS counsellors were spotted and recruited as counsellors precisely as a result of their posting insightful user comments on the IOL website. For instance, Dr. Sahar Talaat was invited to join the counselling team on the basis of her user comments to PS.

The data presented and analyzed in this section illustrate a number of important points. First, the strong identification as professional and in constant development, is mirrored in actual work practices such as the ST’s brainstorming and animated discussions about how to improve their services. Second, the fieldwork episodes demonstrate how ‘the message’ is deeply integrated in the ST’s work practices. The goals of creating both societal and self-awareness manifest themselves, regardless of whether the ST are talking about incest, improving schooling, user comments or ‘accepting the other’. Last but not least, the ST members’ interactions with one another—respecting one another's expertise, debating, engaging in constructive dialogue with a show of real opinions—can be interpreted as a miniature model of the type of society they consider ideal. In the next section, I focus more explicitly on the counsellors.

Professionalism and development in practice—problems and answers

Recruitment of counsellors

A number of the PS counsellors in my sample were amongst the founders of the service and IOL. Still, some counsellors joined the team after replying to newspaper advertisements and having to demonstrate their counselling skills through responding to hypothetical counselling cases. Dr. Nemat Awdalla,30 is a case in point. She tells me that her counselling responses to two hypothetical cases elicited the following reaction from Dr. Ahmed Abdallah: ‘This is (exactly) what we want!’ And from then on she was part of the PS team. By far the most innovative method of recruiting new counsellors is talent scouting amongst users, based on their comments to counselling exchanges. As previously mentioned, Dr. Sahar Talaat was recruited in this manner. Moreover, according to Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil, Dr. Sahar Talaat was exemplary in the way she read all the ‘founding counselling answers’ and subsequently embraced ‘the IOL school of counselling’. He also praises Dr. Sahar Talaat for running her own counselling responses by the founding counsellors for a about a year and half, before working independently. Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil’s assessment of Dr. Sahar Talaat’s efforts is of course a positive evaluation of her. Still, it also points to internal training routines for new PS counsellors.

Internal training—techniques of textual analysis

The first people to read IOL counselling (PS and protocols) were IOL employees… Our thoughts have changed… We changed… (Dr. Ahmed Abdallah).

As previously mentioned, a number of employees entered IOL as trainees. These apprenticeships often entail reading the work of more experienced employees and seeking their guidance when performing work tasks. Yet, according to my observations, even after being employed on regular contracts, seeking each other’s guidance and working in pairs or teams were valued forms of work practices for the ST. There were also more formalized forms of internal training such as courses for novice counsellors. Samar Abduh of the ST was responsible for this, and runs courses that deal with the techniques of working with and analyzing written counselling exchanges. I will attempt to summarize briefly some of the pointers that novice counsellors are schooled in. For one, Samar Abduh guides counsellors on how age, gender, geographical location, country of origin and cultural customs are relevant to understanding a problem in its context and providing a suitable answer31, 32 In addition, there are specific analysis techniques particular to conducting counselling in writing. Moreover, ‘The nick or email address itself may at times reveal something about the counselee's state of mind for instance “sadrose@” or “lovelygirl”.’ According to Samar Abduh, there may also be clues about the counselee’s life, personality, or even disorder lurking between the lines or in ‘the style of writing’. In Samar Abduh’s own words:

Sometimes users write Arabic in chat lingo (Latin letters with numbers replacing certain letters) and you go cross-eyed trying to read it! (laughter). This is a sign that they chat a lot. Also, there is the question of whether the questioner’s sentences are clear or unclear… whether the message is clear… whether he writes very short or at length. Some depressed people write very short, then apologise for writing at great length. Or if the same questioner sends in their question several times… or repeats their message many times… or keeps on asking for a response (…) often the short questions are from depressed people or someone writing in about someone else’s problem, like their children. If it is their own problem they often write at length. Men tend to be short and practical, and not share many emotions. Women tend to write at length. These are tendencies. Then you have those who are all over the place… lots of disorganized thoughts and dots. You hear the voice of someone else… he goes over to a third person narrative when talking about guilt for instance.

In sum, this internal training is fashioned to equip counsellors with ‘e-counselling’ skills. Having face-to-face counselling experience is useful, but certainly not the same. Without the presence of body language and tone of voice, e-counselling requires learning how to interpret clues in the text, and viable techniques of responding in writing as well.33 As for the counselling philosophy, it would seem that the eminent counsellors’ meetings were an important arena for developing just that.

Counsellors’ meetings

Despite individual differences amongst PS counsellors, it is evident that they all draw on the same overarching counselling approach (Abdel-Fadil 2011b, forthcoming b). Several counsellors relate that counsellors’ meetings were instrumental in shaping their counselling approach and in their development as counsellors. This was an offline meeting in which counsellors would meet and discuss counselling cases and share their expertise. At the outset, it was an arena to create what Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil calls ‘foundational answers’. In a similar manner, Dr. Mona Al-Basili maintains that the counsellors’ meeting not only ‘opened up new spaces’ but was also instrumental in creating a ‘religious and social policy’ for the counsellors. According to Hisham Abdelaziz, these meetings were ‘an environment for thinking’ and ‘developing possible ways of solving’ problems, drawing on ‘different skills and perspectives’ and they often entailed considering a problem in the wider frame of the ‘political, cultural, and economic’. All counsellors mention the significance of these meetings. For instance, Dr. Sahar Talaat says:

The counsellors’ meeting is a fantastic idea (…) (Teaching you) how to read the text, how to answer, with distance, with religion (but) without preaching, how not to give a direct answer but develop their brain so that they see things from a wider perspective.34

These are indeed the core counselling ideals of PS as analysed in Abdel-Fadil (forthcoming b), which supports the argument that the counselling philosophy was shaped and developed in these counsellors’ meetings. On a slightly different note, Dr. Amira Badran emphasizes the importance of the transfer of knowledge that took place during these meetings. In Dr. Amira Badran’s own words:

The counsellors’ meeting contributed to the development of our counselling skills through the exchange of expertise and opinions. We often discussed sensitive matters, which led to more in-depth knowledge and more realistic answers.

In sum, the counsellors’ meetings are an important platform for counsellor development and the transfer and exchange of expertise. More specifically, counsellors meetings can be considered the structure for which, in Miller and Rose’s (2008:151) terminology, ‘experiential learning’ is the goal, achieved by drawing on the ‘technology of the group’, i.e., the collective knowledge of the counsellors. Thus, it can be argued that counsellors’ meetings construct the PS counselling approach as a ‘living methodology’ (Miller and Rose 2008:162), to be developed constantly on the basis of the contributions of the counsellors’ experiential learning and expertise. In other words, the counsellors discuss actual counselling cases, exchanging views and expertise. These discussions, in turn, shape and develop each individual counsellor’s counselling practice and contribute to the continuous development of the counsellors’ shared counselling philosophy.

Development of counsellors

In addition to the importance of counsellors’ meetings as an arena for developing ideas and exchanging opinions, several counsellors speak of their personal development as a counsellor. For instance, Dr. Fairuz Omar reveals:

I am becoming more empathetic with time. I am more empathetic than 2 years ago… and I feel that the human being… that the more I encounter the weakness of humans… as long as he is writing to you about his problem, he is asking for someone to help him… Regardless of how wrong… or whatever disaster he created… but in the end he came to you… he is your guest… he is a refugee (…) This is one thing. The other thing is that I have started to understand the personality quicker (…) and of the many things I benefited from is the counsellors’ meeting which was very useful. Why then? Because we are different, some of us are social(ly oriented), (some are) psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers (…) Two hours discussion of a problem, this makes a difference. It has changed things for me: developed my thoughts, deepened my knowledge, helped me see things from more than one approach… see things from new angles… several approaches.

Here, Dr. Fairuz Omar praises the counsellors’ meeting for creating a platform for the exchange of expertise and differing opinions. Intriguingly, this emphasis of the merits of seeing a problem from different angles and perspectives mirrors the counsellors’ ideals of ‘widening the vision’ of counselees. Moreover, Dr. Fairuz Omar who initially described her counselling style as ‘empathetic’, reveals that she has only grown more empathetic with the years of encountering human fallibility.

Dr. Amira Badran describes how she has succeeded in developing more of a distance to in that she no longer immerses herself entirely in a counselee’s problem:

In the beginning we counsellors cried with the questioners and their problems. It had a great impact. We took in all the details (of the problem). With time, we became more professional… and I am more practical now … I am able to forget the mood… I have developed… I am now (better) able to deal with my own life (too).

In my interpretation, her stance does not necessarily entail a lack of empathy with the user. Rather, it suggests that Dr. Amira Badran has found a way to ‘contain’ other people’s problems without erasing the lines between the counsellor and counselee, which is an essential technique to develop in order to avoid ‘burnouts’ and ‘vicarious traumatisation’ (Sexton 1999). Interestingly, when discussing her development as a counsellor, Dr. Amira Badran also mentions that user feedback has been constructive. For instance, she now often includes practical steps in her answers, because users have positively evaluated step-by-step guides. In my interpretation, development and professionalism are interlinked closely in a counselling environment (Wilkins 1997).

Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi highlights how being a counsellor is a continuous process of development, and also names user feedback as an inspiration:

Yes, of course (I develop), even from question to question. There will even be a development between yesterday and today. Also, I developed from the feedback from users. This helps me. Also the reading of many questions has helped identify the keys to the problem… There are commonalities between humans. Sometimes, someone is writing so much with all sorts of digressions, for example that people used to upset him when he was young… but he does not say how they upset him. Because of my experience, I start to understand that he was sexually assaulted when he was young, but is not able to say this… until much later… because he wishes to separate himself from this in his past… because it is causing him guilt and anger now.

In this excerpt, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi, much like Dr. Fairuz Omar, maintains that he has become better at pinpointing and analyzing the actual problem or the ‘key’ to solving the problem of the counselee. The example he uses of a counselee having experienced sexual assault but not being able to say so, once again underlines the joint focus of the ST and the PS counsellors on addressing and dealing with this taboo topic in society. Another interesting aspect of Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi’s response is that he maintains that user feedback and user comments have helped him develop his own counselling skills. As previously mentioned, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi is one of the counsellors who praises the ‘brilliant minds’ amongst PS users. I will now turn to how the counsellors assess the development of users over the years.

Development of users

The questions developed, they became more in-depth and complex, very “challenging” you know. In the beginning people asked silly things like when does the sun go down, then later (we got) more deep and real questions, (…) unsurpassed in Arabic, aided by the internet (Dr. Ahmed Abdallah).

Here, Dr. Ahmed Abdallah appears to be implying that, in the beginning, users did not really understand the counselling service but with time they asked questions that truly related to problems in their lives. This claim is supported by several of the counsellors. For instance, Dr. Fairuz Omar says, ‘The questions are becoming deeper and longer’, and ‘the questions are more in-depth now’ declares Dr. Amira Badran. Another interesting development according to several of the counsellors, for instance Samar Abduh, Dr. Amira Badran and Dr. Fairuz Omar, is that users are becoming better at providing the necessary background information and details of the problem, in order for the counsellor to be able to respond in a suitable manner. In Dr. Mohammed Mahdi’s assessment, ‘The user is asking the question more to the point.’ In other words, there is less beating around the bush. Dr. Amira Badran explains:

The questioner is maturing, from reading so much of our counselling … He now understands… is able to describe his problem, ‘I tried these tools, are there other tools?' It was not like this in the beginning. It happened with time. There is an (increased) degree of awareness and maturity. There is a very big difference.

Intriguingly, Dr. Amira Badran maintains that users are internalizing and demonstrating ‘awareness’, one of the core values of the PS counselling approach and ‘the message’. On a similar note, according to the counsellors, some users engage in critical dialogues with their counselling sessions, by evaluating their counselling response(s) or even asking for the question to be sent to another counsellor. Furthermore, some counselees engage in counselling sequences, providing updates and developments in their problem, and asking for more guidance along the way (Abdel-Fadil 2011b). According to Dr. Heba Rauf, user interaction with the counselling service is taking a new turn:

An interesting tendency lately is that if IOL publishes a very conservative view these days—it is likely that there will be a stream of protests! I mean responses from the audience [IOL users] arguing against this conservative view, thus indicating that those types of views are not what the IOL audience wants or is looking for.

The developments amongst users described above are valued by both the ST and counsellors, since they demonstrate that users are internalizing PS counselling values such as ‘self-awareness’, ‘independency’ and ‘pluralism of perspectives’. These values are also important tropes of the ST’s institutional narrative and key to ‘the message’. Likewise, the pluralism of perspectives and exchange of expertise is something that counsellors value amongst themselves. Moreover, in a counselling context, pursuing continuous development is a professional value and practice. The counsellors meeting serves as a platform to exchange expertise, develop as counsellors, and craft the PS counselling as a ‘living methodology’.

My purpose in highlighting the data in this section is to demonstrate that, for both the ST and the PS, the concept of ‘development’ is inherent to the way they conceive their work, themselves and their service users. This is in line with the institutional narrative, of being in motion, in progress and furthering development and awareness in all its variants. In this sense, the counsellors appear to be living ‘the message’.


The empirical data analyzed in this article demonstrates how IOL’s institutional narrative of former IOL and current On Islam is comprised of an identity as balanced, moderate Islamist, professional and in constant development. The trope ‘the message’ is central to the narrative and to how the employees conceive their work as related to ‘real life’. ‘The message’ entails cultivating self and social awareness amongst the website users, by addressing various aspects of society including societal taboos, in addition to counselling individuals with their real life personal problems. In essence it is a call for the reform of both society and the self. The vision for society is a society that is comprised of socially aware and responsible individuals, who engage in constructive dialogue about a multiplicity of opinions, accept difference, and are able to make informed choices.

Furthermore, the institutional narrative not only informs the ST and PS counsellors' work practices, but actual work practices also contribute to the strengthening and evolving of the narrative. In effect, the narrative and work practices mutually reinforce one another. For instance, the institutional narrative casts the organization as pioneers and in constant development. This has, in all probability, contributed to IOL’s constant expansion and mushrooming out into side projects, crowned by the launch of the counselling channel Ana, in the years preceding 2010.

Interestingly, a few counsellors suggest that IOL’s continuous search for renewal and expansion, central tenets of the institutional narrative, triggered the IOL Crisis, because the organization grew too big and unfocused. In the words of a PS counsellor, IOL became ‘a dinosaur, with body parts moving on its own’. On a similar note, a couple of counsellors suggest that IOL’s expansion—without the necessary financial security—is what led to the IOL Crisis in the first place (Abdel-Fadil 2011a). Put differently, the claim is that the Qatari Balagh Society (the owners of IOL) disapproved strongly of IOL’s expansion initiated by Cairo employees, and considered closing down the Cairo offices the only way to get IOL back on track. What is intriguing about these renderings is that they suggest that the institutional narrative’s ideals of creativity, development and constant renewal of ideas became so strong that they overshadowed all else and ultimately led to IOL Cairo’s demise.

When the IOL Crisis erupted in March 2010, it served to strengthen the institutional narrative amongst Cairo employees. Indeed, the ST’s institutional narrative was remarkably intact regardless of the variation of narratives that depicted the cause of the crisis (Abdel-Fadil 2011a). Several of the crisis narratives claim explicitly that the reason for the crisis is that the members of the newly instated Qatari Balagh Society (the owners of IOL) are not committed to ‘the message’. In the dominant narrative at the beginning of the crisis, the reason for the crisis was given as the Qatari board not being committed to wasatiyya, the focus on ‘lived Islam’, or creating awareness about societal taboos—all intrinsic to ‘the message’. In a later crisis narrative that highlighted external political explanations such as US or Israeli involvement, the Qatari board was depicted as being opposed to Cairo employee’s (political) awareness campaigns about the plight of Palestinians. Once again ‘the message’ and core values of the institutional narrative, namely creating societal and political awareness, were reaffirmed in this crisis narrative. In my interpretation, this indicates how powerful the institutional narrative was to IOL Cairo employees.

The IOL Crisis was at all times framed and understood as an attack on the institutional narrative. This, I believe, was the main mobilizing factor that led Cairo employees to stage sit-ins and protests against the Qatari Balagh Society. In this sense, the institutional narrative’s powerfulness may have contributed to the escalation of the IOL Crisis. When the Balagh Society suggested changes to the website and organization that ran contrary to the institutional narrative, the ST and other Cairo employees felt obliged to rebel and save ‘the message’. One could even argue that the institutional narrative was so powerful to the Cairo employees that when negotiations to keep it intact failed the employees opted to break with ‘the boss’ and the organization in order to found a new enterprise in which the institutional narrative and ‘the message’ could live on. This new enterprise is On Islam. Upon conclusion of my fieldwork at the end of June 2010, all but one of the ST members planned on being a part of the ST of the new website, On Islam, which former IOL Cairo employees were about to launch. In addition, all practicing PS counsellors in my sample planned on continuing their work with PS counselling. Indeed, the powerfulness of ‘the message’ and the institutional narrative to the employees, may well be what created On Islam.

Against this backdrop, Kawther Alkholy hits the nail on the head when she says ‘the organization is “the message”.’ My empirical data and analysis demonstrates that the institutional narrative is not just a lofty set of ideals with no basis in the ST and PS’s actual work practices. On the contrary, the institutional narrative appears to be the backbone of these every day work practices—the latter serving to reinforce the narrative. Another interesting finding is that in their work practices, ST and PS counsellors appear to have succeeded in creating a microcosm of the society they envision, based on constructive dialogue, respect for others’ opinions, the value of competence, the acceptance of difference and striving for constant development and higher levels of awareness. Put simply, the ST and PS counsellors practice what they preach: they practice ‘the message’. In order to achieve the ideal society beyond their own microcosm, the ST and PS must succeed in committing their users to not only hearing about ‘the message’ but also living ‘the message’.


This interview with Kawther Alkholy was conducted just a week before “real” fieldwork commenced and was not audio recorded. The full transcript of the interview has been approved by the interviewee.


IOL Cairo employees staged sit-ins for weeks in protest against what they considered undue interference with their editorial work and autonomy. For a more detailed discussion of how the crisis transpired, see Abdel-Fadil (2011a).


Dr. Heba Rauf publishes under her full name "Heba Rauf Ezzat" but is spoken of as "Heba Rauf".


I have worked as a counsellor in multi-cultural settings in Norway. My counselling experience spans 7 years. I have counselled refugees, co-workers and collaboration partners, both one-on-one and in groups.


A similar strategy, of anonymizing (ethnographic) observation of employees while using the real name of the organization, was employed by Woodthorpe, in her study of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium (Tilley and Woodthorpe 2011).


See Tilley and Woodthorpe (2011) for an insightful discussion of how anonymity may not necessarily always be the ideal in contemporary qualitative research. One of the aspects they discuss is that certain research participants want to be identified.


Dr. Heba Rauf is a well-known intellectual in the Egyptian context. She teaches political science at Cairo University. She has, amongst other things, published numerous academic writings about Islam and gender and Islam and human rights—both of which reflect her personal engagement with Islamic activism.


At the time of my fieldwork Kawther Alkholy was both the head of the Social Section, and in addition performed PR-tasks for IOL as a whole.


In his ethnography of Krakatau Steel in Indonesia, Rudnyckyj (2009) appears to have chosen a similar strategy by using the real name of the organization he studies and mixing the real names of informants with anonymized personae.


For a more thorough discussion of the concept of wasatiyya in Al-Qaradawi's work, see Gräf (2009). A detailed discussion of the middle-ground Islamic aspect of 'the message' features in Abdel-Fadil (forthcoming b), and will not be elaborated on here.


This may entail correcting erroneous interpretations of religion, as discussed in Abdel-Fadil (forthcoming b).


Interview by the author with Dr. Nemat Awdalla, June 2010. Subsequent quotes from Dr. Nemat Awdalla are from this interview.


Interview by the author with Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi, June 2010. All subsequent quotes from Dr. Mohammed Al-Mahdi are from this interview.


Interview by the author with Dr. Ahmed Abdallah in June 2010. All subsequent quotes from Dr. Ahmed Abdallah stem from this interview.


Interview by the author with Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil, June 2010. All subsequent quotes from Dr. Amr Abu-Khalil are cited from this interview.


Words within quotes were said in English.


'M' is for my voice.


Interview by the author with Heba Rauf, July 2009. All subsequent quotations of Dr. Heba Rauf are from this interview.


During my visit to Cairo during the Spring of 2012, I learnt that the Arabic version of On Islam is experiencing funding problems, and PS is temporarily suspended. However, old PS exchanges are still on the website. The English version of On Islam, has more durable funding and can still offer users interactive counselling.


Here the English term is used. The Arabic equivalent referred to during fieldwork (and elsewhere in this interview) literally means ‘the secret habit’.


This also ties into IOL’s global or perhaps more precisely regional aspirations, of being of relevance to users in different Arab contexts, and not only Egypt. Indeed, user statistics show that IOL was successful in reaching out to users in other Arab countries (Abdel-Fadil 2011b).


Interview by the author with Hisham Abdelaziz, May 2010. All subsequent citations of Hisham Abdelaziz are quotes from this interview.


Interview by the author with Dr. Mona Al-Basili, June 2010. Subsequent citations from Dr. Mona Al-Basili are from this interview.


The pros and cons of anonymity online have been discussed in range of academic publications both dealing with online Islam and other aspects of the internet. One major concern has been whether or not ‘experts’ are who they claim to be, in terms of qualifications and, for instance, gender. However, granted that providers of online services are the professionals they advertise to be, most scholars argue anonymity is liberating and positive for those who wish to ask questions of an intimate nature (Turkle 1995; Markham and Baym 2009; Mandaville 2002; Mallen et al. 2005; Bunt 2003).


The literal translation is 'dangerous topics' but in colloquial Arabic this expression entails 'controversy'. It may perhaps also imply boldness on the part of the person discussing such topics.


The literal translation is ‘violent sexual harassment’.


Literally: forbidden to you, here: Those (people) forbidden to you as marriage partners and by extension sexual partners.


The discussion of named counsellors was omitted from the excerpt in the interest of preserving the counsellors’ anonymity, as the counsellors themselves were not present when this dialogue took place.


Interview by the author with Dr. Amira Badran, June 2010. Subsequent citations of Dr. Amira Badran are from this interview.


Dr. Nemat also says that she is a counsellor without formal counselling education, but that she has an ‘instinct’ and finds inspiration in novels. She was hesitant to respond to the advertisement due to her lack of formal education. It was her daughter’s idea that she apply to be a counsellor for IOL. She got the job based on her counselling skills.


This points to the fact that PS counsellors respond to queries from users from all over the Arab world and, to a lesser degree, Arabs who reside in the US or Europe.


Interview by the author with Samar Abduh, May and June 2010 (parts 1 and 2). Subsequent quotes by Samar Abduh stem from this interview.


In Mallen et al. (2005), the authors outline their perspective on e-counselling skills, which intersect with a number of Samar Abduh's points.


Interview by the author with Dr. Sahar Talaat, April 2010. All subsequent quotes by Dr. Sahar Talaat are quotations from this interview.



Special thanks to Berit Thorbjørnsrud and Sarah Jurkiewicz, colleagues at the University of Oslo, for constructive feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012