December 14, 2011

Young Egyptians use Facebook, coffee to bring religions together

From Shahira Amin, Special to CNN
   December 14, 2011 

(CNN) -- A group in Cairo is using a Facebook page to unite Egypt's different religions at a local coffee house in the upperclass suburb of Maadi.
Over a cappuccino and a muffin an orthodox Christian, a liberal Muslim and an ultra-conservative Islamist discuss their differing ideologies in the hopes of changing stereotypes.
Known as the Salafyo Costa group, they say one of their aims is to change the public perception of the Salafists, a puritanical branch of Islam that dictates only the followers of the prophet Mohamed practice the correct Islam. Salafists are often perceived as terrorists, the group says.

As Egyptians come to the end of the first round of voting in the country's historic elections, Islamist parties appear headed for a decisive majority in the first freely elected parliament since the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
So far, the Freedom and Justice Party operated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized political movement, has won nearly 40% of the vote, followed by the ultraconservative Salafist parties with another 25%.
This development has raised concerns in Egypt over the future status of women, secular-minded Egyptians and the country's substantial Christian minority.
But the founders of Salafyo Costa say Islamists like Salafists are largely misunderstood.
"We wanted something to unite us not divide us," says Essat Tolba, a liberal Muslim who helped start the Facebook page and produce videos to be uploaded to Youtube.
"All the misconceptions in the media and the movies ... They portray Salafists as terrorists. This stereotyping is exaggerated by the Western media and unfortunately also by the Egyptian media."

Through our Facebook page and our videos we are trying to tell them: Hear from us rather not about us.

Tolba's brother is a Salafist so the issue of finding a way to allow these more conservative Islamists to integrate themselves into society is even more important for him.
"Salafists are normal human beings. If you treat them as terrorists, what do you expect will be their reaction?"
Co-founder of the Salafyo Costa Facebook page, Ehab El Kholy, a 33-year-old cartoonist and himself a Salafist says: "We are trying to hammer home the message that Salafists are normal people.
"We eat the same food, drink the same beverages and frequent the same hang outs. So don't be surprised when you find Salafists sitting next to you at Costas sipping lattes."
But it hasn't been an easy road as many Egyptians are skeptical of the strict Muslim practices by Salafists. The founders of the Salafyo Costa page think that the Salafi-phobia stems from ignorance.
Ahmed Samir is a Salafi entrepreneur and another co-founder of the Facebook page. He says: "People don't know us. Through our Facebook page and our videos we are trying to tell them: 'Hear from us rather not about us.' Only by listening to us can the misconceptions be cleared and the wrong ideas be corrected."
Other Salafists believe that the media is to blame.
"The media wants to tarnish our image and to portray us in a bad light," says Dr Kamel Abdul Gawad, Secretary general of the Salafist al-Nour Party. "They only talk about thorny issues and falsely accuse us of disliking Copts and mistreating women.
"Copts live among us. They are Egyptian citizens just like us and we hold women in high esteem."
The popularity of the Facebook page is continuing to grow with just over 50,000 members fans of the group and their page. And not all of them are Salafists. There is a combination of liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians who are all eager to learn more about this literalist branch of Islam.
While the Salafyo Costa group started in the electronic world, it has its own roots in real world as well. The group have started organizing more than coffee meetings as they aim to change societal viewpoints.
"We have sent out medical caravans to treat the underprivileged and have organized football matches between Salafis and other teams," says Bassem Victor, a Copt founding member of the Salafyo Costa group.

Lauren Said-Moorhouse contributed to this story.

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