Islam online called. The editors there had heard about my work and the work of my colleague in Cairo, Craig Duff, a contributing videographer to The New York Times, who was teaching videography to students and working journalists via the International Center for Journalists. They asked if we would help train their people. Islam Online, which publishes in Arabic and in English, is one of a slew of Islam-oriented online news operations, but also one of the largest online news sources in the Middle East. It has a large footprint outside the Arab world, too, and its English-language report brings some 40 percent of its traffic. I learned that its funding comes from wealthy Gulf Arabs and that the Egyptian-born Sheik Yusuf Qardawi is its spiritual leader. Among Islam-oriented Web operations, it is considered moderate—but I was wary. I read some of the fatwas that Islam Online had published on its prayer service and decided that they would curl a parakeet’s feathers. I told the editors I won’t help anyone who promotes extremism and violence. They insisted that they believe in moderation and that they intended to weed out the hard-line fatwas, which, in fairness, had been written several years ago. I was still doubtful.
But Craig and I agreed to do it, figuring we could at least nurture the more moderate tendencies in their newsroom. Over the next few weeks, I met separately with the English- and Arabic-language staffs. I tackled the issue of the site’s news values indirectly, stressing that in order for Islam Online to grow, its product had to be professional. That meant intellectual honesty, a sense of fairness, details, and solid sourcing. This would help readers to trust them, I said. Nobody disagreed. Soon, I began to notice that much of the time they agreed when I said certain articles needed more background, more sources, and to be more even-handed.
Still, their stories had an Arab-world slant and conservative Islamic spin. Stories about anti-Muslim prejudice in the West got prominent play. So, too, did any news about Saudi Arabia. The peg was often the Arab world on the defensive. That’s their right, of course, but it doesn’t always produce the honest journalism that the Arab world needs. Islam Online’s editors will have to decide what they want, ultimately. I hope the tug of competition will gradually convince them that good journalism—not journalism in service of a cause—is their best bet, both commercially and in terms of helping their society.
On the top floor of a soot-covered Art Deco era building in downtown Cairo, where the elevators only sometimes work, El Badeel (The Alternative) was being born. Like other newspapers, it needed a license; the government had stalled that for months, and the delay was draining away the money raised for this new newspaper. But the editors were not giving up. With less financial support than Al Masry al Youm, El Badeel wanted to do the same kind of work but from a left-of-center perspective. The plan was for analysis, people-oriented features, and consumer and investigative reporting.
Mohammed Sayed Said, a longtime source and friend, accepted my offer to work with his staff, and I came to El Badeel in March, four months before its first issue was published. After years of writing for Al Ahram, the government’s principal newspaper, Mohammed had taken the job of El Badeel’s editor only a few months earlier—no small risk in a country where career mistakes can be terminal. Soft-spoken, middle-aged, and professorial, Mohammed is a particular kind of Egyptian intellectual. When he speaks in classical Arabic, the language sparkles. Egyptians like him are democratic reformers, believers in the need, and the ability, to reinvigorate their politically moribund society. They don’t carry the baggage of the Nasserites or other outdated Arab nationalist ideologies. They float on their own, borrowing what they like from East and West.