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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

"Who are the people who hate Salafis the most? The Christians," he said. "We called for a football match with a Christian team. We wanted to play on church grounds, but the church was scared and suspicious. We found a private field. Surprisingly, we were scared, and they were scared because they thought they were playing with monsters."

The soccer game ended in a tie.

Bassem Victor, a Christian, said the Salafis followed sharia law teachings on modesty by playing in shorts that stretched below their knees. "There will always be those ideological differences," Victor said, "but that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy coexisting and focusing on what we can do together."

Tolba's group also organized Salafi and Christian doctors to provide care in a poor Cairo neighborhood. Educated Salafis, who gravitate toward information technology jobs, got the word out, and Christians, who control a large part of the pharmaceutical industry, provided low-cost medication.

"We are like Nokia: We're connecting people," said Waleed Moustafa, a member of Salafyo Costa who starred in "Where's My Ear?" Moustafa is using Facebook and the Internet to spread the group's branches to Sudan and Saudi Arabia. "The Salafis are the nearest thing to the soul of God."

Many ultraconservatives believe Tolba and Moustafa's slick all-inclusive message is an affront to Salafi principles. Much of this resistance stems from political naivete and the fact, according to Tolba, that Salafis would benefit from a course in public relations.

"The big Salafi scholars want to break the ice but they don't know how to," Tolba said. "The resistance we're getting is coming from younger Salafis. They don't know how to escape the isolation the old regime kept them in. They don't think breakthroughs come in soccer matches but in speeches and conferences."

Arriving at their namesake coffee shop on a recent night, Tolba and Moustafa, fresh from hours of praying at the mosque, sat near huge windows overlooking the city. They were at ease; waiters weren't staring (too much) and there wasn't a policeman in sight. They spoke of this strange new Egypt and how, quite unexpectedly, they became Salafis.

"One of my friends died in a car accident in 2000," Tolba said. "I was not a practicing Muslim and I started to search for God. By 2002, I found that the Salafi ideology fit my needs. It was pure and spiritual and I needed that enlightenment badly. For the first time, I started to sleep in peace."

This purity led him to tolerance. He says he would accept a Coptic or a woman president — near impossibilities given the country's demographics and Islamic nature — and that Egypt must end discrimination. "Where's My Ear?" was his attempt to play the messenger and keep alive the revolution.

The title is a play on words that is at once clever and unnerving. It suggests that Egyptians of different religious sects must listen to one another. But it is also an allusion to an incident in southern Egypt in which Islamists cut the ear off of a Christian man accused of renting an apartment to promiscuous Muslim women. The film represents the hope of acceptance and the darker edges of sectarianism.

"We have to open up and listen," Tolba said.

This struck him in July when he and Moustafa pitched a tent for 10 days and joined liberals in a sit-in against the ruling military council in Tahrir Square. Many Salafis urged Tolba not to take part in a protest called by secularists. He told them the sit-in was for a better Egypt. But he quickly realized that though the demonstrators had passion, they lacked direction.

"They didn't know exactly what they were demanding," he said. "They didn't know how to map out objectives. I brought a white board and a Magic Marker and I told them, 'You guys are going to take your first interpersonal lesson from a Salafi.'"

They laughed and he did too.

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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