Posted : 2022-05-05
|Worshippers pray at a temporary mosque in Daehyun-dong, Daegu, April 29. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min|
Amid Islamophobic incidents, experts call for better understanding of Islamic culture
By Lee Hyo-jin
The ongoing neighborhood standoff between Muslim immigrants and non-Muslim Koreans surrounding the construction of a mosque in the southern city of Daegu is one of the latest major displays of xenophobia in the country.
The high court’s recent ruling in favor of the group of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, who had been pushing for the construction of the mosque in Daegu’s Buk district, still faces strong opposition from local residents of Korean nationality.
This incident comes four years after some 550 Yemeni asylum seekers of the civil war in Yemen sought refuge on Jeju Island through the 30-day visa-free entry system, causing a stir due to some Korean media outlets alarmist and xenophobic reporting at the time.
The Yemenis, who had arrived on the southern resort island between January and May in 2018, triggered heated debate about why the West Asians had been received by Jeju and whether Korea should have accepted them at all.
Scaremongers fanned the flames of Islamophobia online by going as far as describing the displaced Yemenis as “terrorists disguising themselves as asylum seekers.” This paranoia then led to an online petition calling on the government to abolish the Refugee Act. Astonishingly, even though Korea is a member of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention, this petition drew over 700,000 signatures, with multiple anti-refugee protests being held across the country.
In 2021, the government’s decision to airlift 400 Afghan evacuees, who had helped the Korean government in Afghanistan, to Korea after their homeland fell into the hands of the Taliban, reignited for some the debate over accepting Muslim refugees.
This flurry of recent incidents that have pitted Koreans against Muslim immigrants has prompted soul-searching among Koreans about the reasons behind their negative reactions to the migrants and asylum seekers, especially considering that Korea itself had experienced the devastating effects of war and displacement in its relatively recent history.
Some experts say that Koreans’ lack of understanding of Islamic culture is based on the influence of Western media and negative experiences involving people of the Muslim faith overseas.
Lee Hee-soo, an emeritus professor of cultural anthropology at Hanyang University, pointed to the influence of Western media as one of the key factors that has shaped Koreans’ attitudes toward Muslims.
|Lee Hee-soo, an emeritus professor of cultural anthropology at Hanyang University, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the university campus in Seoul, April 28. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min|
“Compared with other OECD member states, Korea has a high level of Islamophobia, which means many people have hostility, irrational fear or prejudice toward Muslims,” he said. “The Islamic world and the West have a long history of conflict. And Korea mostly receives news and information about Islam through Western media, most of which have hostile views toward the religion.”
However, this sort of analysis based on religion-driven animosity seems not to be applicable in the Korean case.
Korea is relatively religiously heterogeneous, compared to some other countries that are dominated by one particular religion alone. In terms of religious diversity, the country is relatively open to a variety of religious faiths.
A Gallup survey on religious affiliation taken between March 18 and April 7 of this year found that those who identified as Protestant topped the survey with 17 percent, followed by Buddhists (16 percent) and Catholics (6 percent). The rate of people who said they are not affiliated with any religion fell to 40 from 54 percent in 2014. Pollsters contacted 4,630 people but only 1,500 responded. The survey has a margin of error of plus and minus 2.5 percentage points.
According to the Korea Muslim Federation, the number of Muslims in Korea stands at under 200,000, a mere 0.4 of a percent of the country’s population of 52 million. Among them, 150,000 are workers and students from Islamic countries such as Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh.
There are 15 officially registered mosques across the country, along with 150 to 200 musalla, or houses of worship that are smaller in size than a mosque.
On top of the cultural differences, a few horrific incidents carried out by Islamic extremists deeply affected some Koreans stereotypes of all Muslims.
In 2007, 23 Korean missionaries at Saemmul Presbyterian Church were kidnapped by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For several weeks, headlines were dominated by the Taliban members’ threat to kill the hostages, with two of them eventual being killed. The other hostages were released after 40 days.
Earlier in 2004, Kim Sun-il, a Korean interpreter and Christian missionary in Iraq was kidnapped and beheaded by the Unity and Jihad group, linked to al-Qaeda.
In Korea, since the enactment of the anti-terrorism law in 2016, over 100 foreign nationals were deported after they were found to be associated with Islamic terrorist groups, according to data from the National Intelligence Service. They had engaged in terrorism-related activities by supporting certain organizations or wiring funds to them.
Nonetheless, Lee said that this relatively small number of extremists do not represent the Muslim community in Korea and thus, Muslims do not pose a threat to society.
|Anti-Muslim protestors rally against a group of asylum seekers from Yemen, in Seoul, June 30, 2018. Newsis|
“It is a massive generalization to link the Muslims living in Korea, who are mostly workers that have come to stay for a short period of time, with extremist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS). Such extremists account for only about five percent of the Muslim population worldwide,” he said.
But due to a lack of understanding of Islam, Muslims living in Korea, or those seeking to settle here, are often exposed to discrimination and hatred in their daily lives.
Lee viewed that in the case of Daegu, residents of Korean nationality should respect that mosques play a critical role in Islamic life as they are not only houses of worship, but places where important events are held.
“Religious activities carried out near residential buildings may cause some inconveniences to the neighbors, but considering that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, it would be better for the residents, as global citizens, to show respect to their Muslim neighbors,” he added.
Yi Soo-jeong, a senior research fellow at Sogang Euro-MENA Institute, who has visited dozens of Islamic places of prayer across the country, also viewed that the residents should be more understanding toward Muslims, who are also members of Korean society.
“Although it may seem a little uncommon for a mosque to be built in the middle of a residential area, a mosque is an inseparable part of Muslims’ daily lives. And this should be respected,” she told The Korea Times.
These kinds of conflicts are likely to continue to occur, as modern South Korea has a relatively short history of cohabitation with people of different nationalities or religions than those commonly practiced here, according to Yi.
“A feasible solution would be for the government to engage more actively in solving the issues, for instance, by setting up a task force which handles conflicts surrounding migrants or people of different cultural backgrounds,” she said.