CAIRO - Reaching out to a fearful community, a group of Egyptian salafi, liberal and Christian youth has established a facebook page to change the negative public perception of the Salafis and discuss differing ideologies in the hopes of changing stereotypes.
We wanted something to unite us, not divide us, Essat Tolba, a liberal Muslim who helped start the Salafyo Costa Facebook page and produce videos to be uploaded to YouTube, told CNN on Wednesday, December 14.
Suffering from years of portraying them as terrorists, a group of youth formed the group known as Salafyo Costa, saying one of their aims is to change the public perception of the Salafis.
All the misconceptions in the media and the movies ... they portray Salafists as terrorists, Tolba added.
This stereotyping is exaggerated by the Western media and unfortunately also by the Egyptian media.
Gathering over a cappuccino and a muffin, the group was finding a way to allow Salafis to integrate themselves into society.
"Salafists are normal human beings. If you treat them as terrorists, what do you expect will be their reaction?" Tolba, whose brother is a Salafi, said.
Following the Egyptian revolution that toppled the regime of President Hosni Mubarak last February, Salafis appeared as a new political force in the Egyptian politics.
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 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 Salafis El-Nour party 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 are trying to hammer home the message that Salafists are normal people, co-founder of the Salafyo Costa Facebook page Ehab El Kholy, a 33-year-old cartoonist and himself a Salafi, said.
"We eat the same food, drink the same beverages and frequent the same hangouts. So don't be surprised when you find Salafists sitting next to you at Costas, sipping lattes."
Facing a tough road, the founders of the Salafyo Costa page think the Salafi-phobia stems from ignorance.
People don't know us, Ahmed Samir, a Salafi entrepreneur and another co-founder of the Facebook group, said.
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 Salafis blame media for spreading misconception about them.
The media wants to tarnish our image and to portray us in a bad light, says 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, he added.
Copts live among us. They are Egyptian citizens just like us, and we hold women in high esteem. Gaining more popularity, the Facebook page members are continuing to grow, with more than 50,000 fans of the group, many of whom are not salafis themselves.
The page gathers a combination of liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians who are all eager to learn more about this branch of Islam.
Launching their activities in the electronic world, the Salafyo Costa group has 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.