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In Egypt, young and tech-savvy Islamists try to project new image

The young Salafis, or ultraconservative Muslims, keep their beards and moral piety but project a hip, socially conscious allure to soften the brimstone of their clerics. It is a perplexing terrain.

October 13, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian Salafi demonstrators attend a unity rally in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square in July.
Egyptian Salafi demonstrators attend a unity rally in downtown Cairo's… (Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Cairo — Bearded and feeling misunderstood, Mohamed Tolba made a movie to tell the world he is not a terrorist.

"Where's My Ear?" is a satire on the colliding passions and deep suspicions between liberals and ultraconservative Muslims like him, known as Salafis, who have become a pronounced political voice in the new Egypt. The short film has gotten more than 80,000 hits on YouTube and has made Tolba a celebrity and a curiosity among the Koran set.

The plot is simple: A liberal invites a Salafi to his home in a comedy of errors and misperceptions. The liberal offers tea but the Salafi, whose beliefs forbid alcohol, suspects it's spiked with vodka. The Salafi, convinced that the liberal is scheming to have him arrested, searches the living room for hidden surveillance cameras.

The playful yet earnest clip is the work of a group of young Salafis who are keeping their traditional beards and religious piety but are showing a hip, socially conscious facet to soften the brimstone of their clerics.

It is a perplexing terrain. Tolba has received angry text messages accusing him of betraying Islam while he has also endured wary glances and whispered asides from secularists.

Before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, "it was not safe for a bearded guy to walk in the street, ride a bus or eat in a restaurant," Tolba said. "The media blamed Salafis for terrorist attacks. We became isolated, a whole separate world. But when Mubarak went away, this bubble collapsed."

Ultraconservatives and more moderate Muslim Brotherhood followers are vibrant forces in a political Islam that is indigenous yet often splintered and undefined after decades of suppression. The extremist elements of this revival, with their calls for banning bikinis at tourist resorts, abolishing banks, breaking Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and establishing an Islamic caliphate, have rattled liberals and fed Western misgivings.

The potency of sectarianism has sharpened since Mubarak's fall. It grew more disturbing this week when at least 20 Christian Copts were killed in clashes with soldiers and thugs during a protest over the burning of a church in southern Egypt. The violence, which included Muslim men attacking Christians with stones and sticks, revealed the simmering religious passions that can easily be manipulated by Islamic fundamentalists.

Religion's pull on political life in Egypt will affect Islamist movements in other nations seized by revolution and change, such as Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. Flowing through the discourse are questions on modernism, democracy and how young generations with lives drenched in Western technologies and images will merge Islam with the political aspirations of the so-called Arab Spring.

Tolba, a heavyset telecom sales manager with rimless glasses, wants to calm the clamor as his increasingly divided country bickers over a new constitution.

"Yes, we want Islamic influence in the constitution, but we want fair laws without intimidation," said Tolba, 32. "If people decide that sharia will not rule, we will accept that."

He has a wry sense of humor and mischievous wit. Many Egyptians, he said, suffer from "Salaphobia: They don't think we smile or joke."

Tolba and other young ultraconservatives founded Salafyo Costa, named for the Western-style cafe they frequent. The movement is similar to efforts by secular activists to break with the established order and create a progressive generation of political and religious leaders.

"We're trying something brand-new," said Tolba, who studied at the American University in Cairo and speaks flawless English. "The stereotype is that the Salafi belongs to the lower classes and has a poor education. That doesn't represent the way we in Costa's Salafis look, behave or look at the future."

But Salafis have been at the center of disturbing scenes, including the deadly May burning of a Coptic Christian church in Cairo and a recent protest in which tens of thousands of Salafis demanded a strict Islamic state. Public statements by Salafi elders bristle with cultural and religious intolerance and fears that liberals want to turn Egypt into Sodom and Gomorrah.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, literalists in following the Koran, have no rigid organizational structure. Their belief that Islam must permeate all segments of life makes them less adept at political compromise even though they can turn hundreds of thousands out to vote. Tolba is trying to improve this image.

"The masses have found themselves a bit lost" since the revolution, Tolba said. "The spirit of Tahrir Square is fading away.... Our main goal is unity. Nobody is working to bring liberals and Islamists together. We stand in the middle and push politics aside."

One of Salafyo Costa's coming-out parties, so to speak, was a small but symbolic gesture.

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