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Salafyo Costa founder Mohamed Tolba, left, and Bassem Victor talk at a Costa Coffee shop in Cairo.

Shawn Baldwin/The Globe and Mail

It began as a joke. Mohamed Tolba, an IT executive, had time to kill between meetings and told the receptionist in his Cairo office that he would be at the Costa Coffee around the corner if anyone needed him. "You go to Costa?" she asked, startled.

"Yes," he replied patiently. "Even me. I drink coffee and eat cheesecake."

His colleague couldn't quite fathom the idea that someone like Mr. Tolba – who sports a bushy beard and prays fives times a day without fail – might hang out in an outlet of the British coffee chain that is a haunt of secular Egyptian urbanites. For Mr. Tolba, it was just one more incident of the misconceptions that dog Salafism, the stream of Islam he practises.

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"I realized," he recalled later, "we have issues."

The interaction, though, spurred him finally to take them on. He resolved to try to address the image problem of his ultra-conservative Islam using, what else, Facebook. He started a forum for debate and outreach, and he named it Salafyo Costa – the Salafis at Costa – after his favourite latte joint. Within months, thousands of Egyptians, and Muslims in other countries, were participating in the online debates, and soon the group was meeting in real life. Over, of course, coffee.

Adherents to the Salafi stream of Islam say true Muslims must emulate, in dress and behaviour, the early seventh-century religious practices of the Prophet Mohammed and his first followers (salaf is the Arabic word for predecessor or forefather). This includes their appearance – the men dress as they think the Prophet did with untrimmed beards, calf-length robes and no leather, and most Salafi women wear full-face veils.

Egypt's Salafis were linked to the radical fundamentalist groups that waged a campaign of violence against the Egyptian state and attacked tourists in the 1990s. But after the 2011 revolution, several Salafi parties registered to participate in the country's first democratic parliamentary elections, and the Salafi bloc won nearly a quarter of the seats.

In the acrimonious debate over a new draft constitution, the Salafis stood out for their insistence that Islamic law, or sharia, must be the "primary source" of legislation, a more fundamentalist view than even the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Egyptians, including young people who staged the dramatic protests in Tahrir Square that ousted Hosni Mubarak and then the military leaders who tried to succeed him, accuse ultra-conservatives such as the Salafis of trying to impose their fundamentalist version of Islam on the country. They worry that the participation of such conservative Islamists in the new democratic system will erode the freedoms they won.

For the genial Mr. Tolba, such fears about Salafis are based on reputation, not reality. "We have [self-inflicted] communications issues, he said. "We've been living in a bubble for 40 years."

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Salafyo Costa focused on interfaith understanding, badly battered after Salafi mobs carried out a series of church-burnings and attacks on Christians, and emboldened Salafist groups' demonstrations demanded a "more Islamic" country in the wake of the revolution.

Alarmed, Mr. Tolba, 35, approached Bassem Victor, a Coptic Christian of the same age whom he had met during the Tahrir protests, and they agreed to work together. "The traditional approach is you bring a priest and an imam for talks and they kiss each other and it's all [rubbish]," Mr. Tolba said. "We decided to play football."

They held their first match, Copts versus Salafis, in June. "At an Egyptian football match you find swearing, kicking, coffee breaks," he said. "We needed to highlight that the part where there's conflict is very small, and you don't find it in a football match."

The game was a convivial success – perhaps because it finished in a 6-6 tie. Spectators and participants, said Mr. Tolba, came to the mutual yet critical realization that "these guys are normal, they laugh, they eat like us, they make the same jokes."

Mr. Victor, 35, said he felt the outreach was vital to his survival in Egypt, as the Mubarak regime, which had always protected the Christian minority and saw fundamentalist Muslims as a threat, was gone. "I had to get to know these people. … It was either leave the country, get to know them or live in fear."

At his first Salafyo Costa meeting, he met a young woman and instinctively reached to shake her hand. She refused to touch a non-relative of the opposite gender, and he suddenly realized he was deep in terra incognita. "That was the first time I'd had that experience – which means that in 35 years I'd never met a person who's an Islamist," Mr. Victor recalled. He was, he later learned, the first Christian to whom that young woman had ever spoken. The two are now good friends, he added.

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Mr. Tolba says that finding common ground is not difficult. Because his appearance makes him easily identified as a Salafi, he was constantly harassed under the old regime, stopped in the streets, searched, and once turned back by police on the highway as he tried to take his wife for a seaside picnic and told he had no right as a citizen to drive down the road. Christians, he said, also know that sense of minority persecution, and Salafis need to recognize it now.

The two men estimated that the group's active members – the 21,000 who debate on Facebook – are 30-per-cent Christian, 30-per-cent Salafi and 30-per-cent secular Muslims. For their first year they met in coffee shops, but they have now rented a flat in the heart of Cairo to use as a headquarters. The nearest Costa, fortunately, is a mere 50 paces away. The group's 130 core members are debating what to do next. In addition to their interfaith outreach work such as charity health camps and conflict mediation, should they be entering politics on some sort of pluralist platform?

They are something of a hit with the Egyptian media – since the usual Salafi spokespeople tend to the dour – but have sown some doubt among their own. Salafi sheiks have told Mr. Tolba their work is frivolous and unnecessary; Christians tell Mr. Victor he's foolishly fraternizing with an untrustworthy enemy. And liberals want to know why they're all in the coffee shop. For that, Mr. Tolba has a typically sly answer, one that has become the group's motto – a reference to liberal fears. "We always pay for the drinks," he said.

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