An Algerian columnist recently warned of a growing trend that could bring Islamic civilization crashing down: the selfie. More young Muslims are taking selfies, he noted, a symptom of “the diseases and the viruses of the Western world” making their way into Arab lands.
“I consider my article as an open letter to all the Islamic Ummah’s youth,” the piece said, excluding the approximately 1 in 10 Arabs who are not Muslim in the process. “It is a call to stop adopting such sick behaviors that come to destroy our traditions and the basics of human cultural identity.”
Such sentiments are typical fare for readers of socially conservative and politically Islamist media in the Arab world. But its publisher was one new to the Arabic-language media scene, and better known for its close ties to liberal and progressive politics: the Huffington Post.
While selfie culture is a mainstay of the Huffington Post’s English-language sites, readers would rarely expect to see religious-tinged screeds denouncing them. Many Arab readers have expressed surprise and disappointment that Huffington Post Arabi, as the new site is known, seems to have taken such an editorial departure from its parent.
The selfie article is “one opinion expressed by one blogger,” Nicholas Sabloff, the Huffington Post’s executive international editor, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “The views on the blog do not reflect HuffPost’s global editorial viewpoint, nor the viewpoint of our HuffPost Arabi editors.”
But the themes of the article — of a declining and humiliated Muslim world needing to be reinvigorated by a return to traditional values — are classic tropes of conservative and Islamist media in the Arab world. So why are they showing up time and again on the outpost of one of America’s best-known progressive websites?
Critics of the new site have focused on the men overseeing it: Al Jazeera Arabic alumni Wadah Khanfar and Anas Fouda, both of whom are widely considered to be sympathetic to political Islam. Both deny any bias in their work, but the site has already been forced to withdraw an article due to its inflammatory message and language.
There’s a war against Islam, an Egyptian columnist warned in the article, published on Saturday. The conflict pits secularists and their military allies against the country’s Muslims, he wrote, and the evidence is everywhere, from atheists being allowed on television to nudity being permitted in fashion shows. The government, he warned, would even allow “a press conference for gays in the heart of Cairo.”
The article drew on tropes common to Islamist media: resentment of liberals and secularists, the belief in a broad conspiracy against true Muslims, and incitement against gays and other minorities. Its publication by the Huffington Post had many bewildered.
Amid a wave of criticism on social media — including for the derogatory Arabic term used to describe gay people — the post was taken down, less than a day after it was published. In its place is an editor’s note, saying the article “should not have been published, as it contradicts the Huffington Post’s editorial positions and guidelines which are based on encouraging positive dialogue and mutual respect.”
Since its launch in July, Huffington Post Arabi has published plenty of the kind of stuff you would see on its English-language mothership: quick aggregation of breaking news stories, lively entertainment coverage, and a healthy smattering of liberal bloggers.
But it has also caused plenty of raised eyebrows on the Arab social web, as readers who associate the Huffington Post with left-wing celebrity columnists, sideboob, and reliably progressive takes on pop culture come across article after article infused with religious and social conservatism.
The company says many of those raised eyebrows are inevitable as it tries to publish truly diverse voices in a region where war, revolution, and withering government crackdowns on opposition groups have left the public intensely divided, and quick to denounce those with opposing opinions.
“In a region where the media landscape is polarized, we are trying to create a space where a diversity of perspectives can co-exist,” Sabloff said. “Given the upheaval the region is experiencing, it is likely that articles which have a strong perspective or opinion may upset one group or another. But we want HuffPost Arabi to provide diversity and balance as a site.”
The Arabic site falls under the same global editorial guidelines as the rest of the Huffington Post’s network of sites, and while the company declined to share those guidelines, it said they include a ban on “views advocating violence or condemning an entire group.”
Huffington Post Arabi is being run as a joint venture between the Huffington Post and Integral Media Strategies, a company run by former Al Jazeera chief Wadah Khanfar. Its editorial operations are being led by editor-in-chief Anas Fouda, another Al Jazeera veteran.
Khanfar became managing director of Al Jazeera Arabic in 2003; a 2007 article in The Nation contained complaints from numerous current and former staff that under his leadership, the channel took on increasingly Islamist leanings. “The liberals, the secular types, the Arab nationalists are getting downsized and the Islamic position is dominating the newsroom,” Shaker Hamid, a former Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad, told The Nation at the time.
“The accusations of favoring the Muslim Brotherhood, or having close ties with the Americans, are not new,” Khanfar told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “They have been a result of official Arab propaganda, many governments in the region do not want to see balanced reporting or an outlet that allows all opinions.”
Fouda was detained without charge in the United Arab Emirates in 2013 as part of the Persian Gulf country’s crackdown on alleged Islamist sympathizers (he was released after a month). In a statement, he told BuzzFeed News that he “became closer to the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading opposition group in the parliament” during his time at university in Egypt in the late 1980s.
“I severed ties with all political groups in the 1990s, so that I could maintain my journalistic independence and integrity,” he said. Since then, he has worked at a number of media outlets, including 24-hour Arabic news network Al Arabiya and its parent company, the Dubai-based MBC Group.
In signing up with the Huffington Post, he appears to have taken inspiration for the Arabic site from founder Arianna Huffington herself.
The first time the two met and discussed the concept of Huffington Post Arabi, “she spoke to me of the wisdom that is in our region, a region that was once the cradle of civilization and religion,” Fouda wrote in his editor’s note marking the launch of Huffington Post Arabi.
That note, like much of the content on the new site, then took an unexpected twist. “I in turn believe in the positivity of looking for a way out,” he wrote, “and that the inherent wisdom that stems from our history and religious heritage are necessary weapons in this time of #WorldWar3.”
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