Revolutionary Road Trip
2:14 am
Tue June 19, 2012

Muslim Faction Has Its Roots In Cairo Coffee Klatch

Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 8:48 am

NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is nearing the end of his Revolutionary Road Trip, a journey across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves. Steve and his team began in Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, drove across the deserts of Libya, and filed this report from the third and final country, Egypt.

In a satellite city outside Cairo, big-box stores and developments spread along a highway — among them, a complex called the Mall of Arabia, a shopping mall to match anything in Dallas. It's so new, and the floor so polished, you can almost see your reflection in it.

We'd come to meet a Salafist, which refers to the earliest Muslims. Salafis today insist on a strict and puritanical view of Islam.

As we traveled through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, people talked about Salafi protests, violence against alcohol or being in favor of women wearing a niqab — a cloth that covers the entire face except the eyes.

The Egyptian we were meeting, however, was a member of a distinctive Salafist faction. They're known as the Costa Coffee Salafists because they tend to meet in upscale coffee shops, the Egyptian equivalent of Starbucks.

These Salafists' insistence on tradition does not preclude them from sipping a caramel macchiato. And naturally, we met the founder, Mohammed Tolba, in a mall coffee shop, sipping on a strawberry iced tea.

"It's a national Salafi drink," he says with a laugh.

A Joke That Turned Into Something Real

Tolba, 33, an employee at an information technology firm, has a bushy beard that's a marker of religious conservatives.

The Costa Salafists earned their name when friends met in a Costa coffee shop and someone made a wisecrack about the latte-drinking men with beards. Tolba soon decided to publicize the group on Facebook.

"We are a movement that happened coincidentally, by chance," he says. "It was a joke, and then it turned to be something real, very real."

Tolba, who checked his iPad several times during our talk, says he disagrees with people who are prejudiced against his beard, as well as Salafists who don't approve of his Western-style jeans.

Many Salafists think traditional men's dress is a religious injunction. Tolba thinks it's just a cultural preference.

Tolba's definition of a Salafist may differ from other factions. He says he is orthodox, comparing himself to an orthodox Christian, and that he believes in a dialogue with different people.

Tolba brought along two other members of the Costa Coffee Salafists. One was a young woman who carefully moved her niqab while sipping her mocha frappe. The other was a Christian.

No Rejection Of The Modern World

Sitting amid the bustle of the mall, Tolba insists he does not reject the modern world.

We asked what he would want to change if he controlled Egypt.

"I have to accept that this is there. This is our community, this is our culture. You cannot change it; it takes like tens of years," Tolba says. "I might not accept everything there, but I cannot change it culturally."

Listening carefully to Tolba, you sense he would like to change people over time.

And he's willing to discuss it. That's a meaningful distinction, because we found during our 2,700-mile journey that not everybody is willing to talk.

In Tunisia, Salafist demonstrations have led increasingly to violence. In Libya, we saw protesters with machine guns, holding up signs declaring democracy incompatible with Islam.

You can say the Arab world faces a divide between liberals and conservatives. A more important divide is between people who listen to others, and people who insist that others must do as they say.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, fear of religious conservatives gave Egypt's ruling generals political cover to limit their country's democracy. And during our recent visit to Cairo, we went to meet a religious conservative. We found him in a satellite city of the metropolis, in a giant shopping complex called the Mall of Arabia.

This is a shopping mall to match anything in Dallas. You can buy clothing. You can buy shampoo. You can buy plasma TVs, sport utility vehicles. It's so new. The floor is so polished, you can almost see your reflection in it.

We'd come to meet a Salafist. The word Salaf refers to the earliest Muslims, and Salafis today insist on a strict and puritanical view of Islam. Throughout our journey across Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, people talked of Salafi agitation against alcohol, women's rights or provocative art. But we were meeting the founder of a distinctive Salafist faction. Mohammed Tolba met us not in a mosque, but in this mall, in an upscale coffee shops.

And what are you drinking, if I may ask?

MOHAMMED TOLBA: It's iced tea.

INSKEEP: Oh, iced tea. OK.

TOLBA: Strawberry.

INSKEEP: Strawberry iced tea.

TOLBA: It's a national Salafi drink.

INSKEEP: He's 33 years old, an employee of an IT firm, and one of several friends who sport beards. People in his movement are known as Costa Coffee Salafists, because they meet in upscale coffee shops, the Egyptian equivalent of Starbucks.

TOLBA: We are a movement that happened coincidentally, by chance.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

TOLBA: It was a joke, and then it turned to be something real, very real.

INSKEEP: Somebody made a crack about latte drinkers with beards, and Tolba decided to publicize the group on Facebook. Tolba, who checked his iPad several times during our talk, says he disagrees with people who are prejudiced against his beard. He also disagrees with Salafists who do not like his Western-style jeans. They think traditional men's dress is a religious injunction. He thinks it's just a cultural preference. Asked how he defines a Salafist, Tolba answers...

TOLBA: Not bin Laden.

INSKEEP: Not Osama bin Laden.

TOLBA: Not Osama bin Laden.

INSKEEP: OK.

TOLBA: And it's not George Bush. OK. A Salafi are those who, like, in Christianity, are the orthodox.

INSKEEP: He's Orthodox, he says, and believes in dialogue. Since we asked to meet some members of his movement, he brought two along. One was a young woman who carefully moved her face covering, or niqab, while sipping her mocha. The other was actually a Christian. Tolba, the founder, insists he does not reject the modern world.

I just have one other question: We're in this gigantic shopping mall. There's a Ruby Tuesday over there. I don't know if they have alcohol on the menu there, but in America, you can go to a Ruby Tuesday, you can order a beer. Here's a Noodle House. You can buy a car. There's football, or what Americans call soccer, on TV, guys running around in shorts. There's an incredible variety of things going on here. There's music playing. If you were in control in Egypt, would you change any of this?

TOLBA: I have to accept that this is there. This is our community. This is our culture. You cannot change it. It takes like tens of years. I might not accept everything there, but I cannot change it culturally, you know.

INSKEEP: Listening carefully to Mohammed Tolba, you sense that he would like to change people over time, but he's willing to talk about it. That's a meaningful distinction, because we found during our recent journey, that not everybody is willing to talk.

In Tunisia, Salafist demonstrations have led increasingly to violence. In Libya, we saw protesters with machine guns, holding up signs declaring democracy incompatible with Islam. You can say the Arab world faces a divide between liberals and conservatives. A more important divide is between people who listen to others and people who insist that others must do as they say.

We're glad you joined us for our journey along the Revolutionary Road: Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Our producer was Nishant Dahiya, and you can find the work of our photographer John Poole at npr.org. We'll have more dispatches in days to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.