Salafyo Costa aims to put a new face on fundamentalism

Salafyo Costa aims to put a new face on fundamentalism

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Sun, 05/06/2011 - 12:30

As a symbol of the triumph of Western-style capitalism, Costa Coffee takes some beating.

Founded 40 years ago in south London by two Italian brothers, the chain now has an annual turnover of US$425 million and is second in global dominance only to Starbucks.

So one wonders how they would feel about Salafyo Costa - a web-based political forum founded by Salafis who have decided to adopt the world-famous coffee brand.

Started after the March referendum on Egypt’s constitutional amendments, Salafyo Costa was conceived by a group of friends who used to frequent a Costa Coffee outlet in Mohandessin.

According to co-founder Mohamed Tolba, the sight of bearded Salafis slurping on lattes did not always go down well with the other well-heeled customers.

“People didn’t accept the idea that Salafi guys could sit and drink in Costa Coffee. Everybody was unfriendly,” the 32-year-old said. “It’s because they have a perception that Salafis don’t go for coffee in such places.”

Salafism is a literalist branch of Islam which dictates that only the early followers of the Prophet Mohamad practiced their religion correctly. Salafis attempt to adhere strictly to the lifestyle of the Prophet’s early companions, from their dress to their religious practices.

Tolba’s response to the Costa cold shoulder was to create a Facebook group appropriating the company’s famous logo. But instead of three coffee beans ringed by the multi-national company’s name, a bearded, white-haired Salafi man is featured staring solemnly into the distance.

“I wanted to say that we are normal people,” said Tolba, a sales manager and father-of-three. “We walk on the streets, eat in lovely restaurants and drink cappuccino.”

“That’s the way we are. We’re normal people,” he said.

Originally set up three friends, Hisham Badr, Walid Mustafa and Tolba, the number of members has now reached more than 2700 - in large part due to newspaper coverage about Salafyo Costa’s cheerful poster that they took to recent protests in Tahrir Square.

The banner featured a famous Egyptian saying which the group has appropriated as its slogan: “We’re always paying for your drinks” - a reference to Tolba’s belief that Salafis are being unfairly blamed for many of the problems afflicting post-Mubarak Egypt.

“We talked to the people and told them that we were normal, and we said that we should get together to build a new Egypt.”

The founders of Salafyo Costa are all professionals in their late twenties or early thirties. They are not members of any other Salafi groups, and were all inspired to follow their branch of Islam through the teachings of the same preacher, Sheikh Mohammad Abdul Maqsud from 6th of October City.

“There is nothing to differentiate our lifestyles, except maybe we are more conservative and orthodox,” he said.

“Maybe we would not pray in a mosque which has a grave in it. We would not go to places that serve alcohol, and when I go to Sharm El Sheikh with my wife we try to avoid beaches where there are women with bikinis.”

Yet Salafyo Costa is not an exclusively Muslim enterprise. Many of the those who have signed up on Facebook are Christians, liberals or secularists who have warmed to the group’s message of inclusiveness - as well as the page’s diet of pithy comment and politically-themed video links.

Tolba said he and his friends knew a number of Salafis who did not agree with their approach of having dialogue with different groups. “They think we should be against those that attack us,” he explained. Yet the Facebook forum has gone down well with many of its non-Salafi members.

Marwa Nasser, a 28-year-old translator who joined the Facebook group, said that many of the people who have signed up are drawn to Salafyo Costa’s sense of humor.

“They make fun of themselves or the common misperceptions that people have about Salafis,” she said. “They explain some of the misconceptions about Salafis, and explain that they are normal people who joke, laugh and dream of a better future for the country.”

Tolba said that in recent weeks his group has held meetings with members of the pro-reform National Association for Change and the leftist Tagammuu Party. The meetings, he said, were an opportunity for people of different ideologies to question each other about their beliefs - though there has been no official contact with the leaderships of secular or liberal groups.

Last week Salafyo Costa was approached by three leading sheikhs who wanted to align themselves with the group following the publicity after Friday’s demonstration, Tolba said, though he would not reveal who they were. The group was not interested in aligning itself with clerics, though.

“They wanted to say, ‘Salafyo Costa is a part of us’. But we don’t want to join them. We are different in the way we talk to people,” Tolba said.

Salafism has come under an increasingly unforgiving spotlight in recent months. A wave of church-burnings and sectarian flare-ups - some of which have allegedly started amid murky rumors of female converts from Christianity being held captive in houses of worship - have been blamed on the baleful influence of Salafis.

According to Tolba, many Salafis have no interest in dictating to people how they should or should not live their lives. “My personal view is that sheikhs do not want to oblige someone to do something they are not comfortable with.”

“But if there was a vote and the people of Egypt said, ‘no we don’t want alcohol in Egypt’, can anybody say that this is undemocratic or unfair? This is democracy. Whatever 85 million people choose we will follow, no matter what it is.”

Stephane Lacroix, an expert on the movement who has spent many years studying fundamentalist Islamic groups, said the Salafis responsible for the deadly clashes in Imbaba last month were probably bad apples acting at the behest of local “neighborhood sheikhs.”

“If you look at the statements from the majority of sheikhs, they have all condemned the violence. They have said it is to the detriment of Salafism,” he said.

In reference to the sectarian conflict that has followed the Egyptian uprising, Tolba said that he believes Christians and Muslims should have “equal rights and demands” in Egypt.

At the same time, he drew attention to the fact that Islamists had been persecuted by secular governments for the past 60 years, during which time presidents from Gamal Abdel Nasser through Hosni Mubarak made a point of repressing the activities of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We’ve been stopped from traveling in airports, on highways, not allowed to go to certain restaurants or have certain jobs. It was a terrible life,” he said.

“But we lived in it and we accepted these people. And we are partners in this nation, no matter how badly we’ve been treated.”

And though Salafyo Costa represents a tiny number of Salafis, Tolba said he still wants to encourage dialogue between members of his sect and people outside the faith.

A workshop held late last week by Salafyo Costa in Cairo brought together Salafis to talk with liberals and secularists. The group is also planning on arranging a football match this month involving people of different ideologies.

“We want to tell people that yes, we are different,” said Tolba. “We know we are different, but there is common ground between us.”