Islam offline—living ‘The message’ behind the screens


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.

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  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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).

  3. 3.

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

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    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.

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    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.

  11. 11.

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

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

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

  14. 14.

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

  15. 15.

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

  16. 16.

    Words within quotes were said in English.

  17. 17.

    'M' is for my voice.

  18. 18.

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

  19. 19.

    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.

  20. 20.

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

  21. 21.

    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).

  22. 22.

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

  23. 23.

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

  24. 24.

    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).

  25. 25.

    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.

  26. 26.

    The literal translation is ‘violent sexual harassment’.

  27. 27.

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

  28. 28.

    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.

  29. 29.

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

  30. 30.

    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.

  31. 31.

    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.

  32. 32.

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

  33. 33.

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

  34. 34.

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


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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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Correspondence to Mona Abdel-Fadil.

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Abdel-Fadil, M. Islam offline—living ‘The message’ behind the screens. Cont Islam 7, 283–309 (2013).

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  • Online Islam
  • Islamism
  • Ethnography
  • Institutional narrative