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Gaga: Rest in Peace (b.2002 - d.2010)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

on Muslims and Islam in Korea -1

Seoul Mosque

A lot has changed in South Korea in the past one decade with respect to Muslims and Islam. On and off, we see articles, columns and essays briefly touching on Muslims in Seoul and its satellite cities or Korea in general.

When we first moved to Seoul, I still remember taking part in anti-war rallies, against the war in Iraq, held in Jongno with YJY, my Korean friend.  We lit candles and threw paper doves in the air. At the time, daily doze of such protests was seen outside the American embassy and the Yongsan base which is sandwiched between Itaewon and Samgakchi. Public was really upset about Korea's involvement in America's war in Iraq.

Then we saw Roh, Moo-hyun, a newly elected president at the time, who came to power solely because of the young voters, committed sending non-combatant forces which later comprised of 50% of the combatant forces to Iraq. Protests that were peaceful in the beginning turned into fierce fighting between the riot police and the protesters. Water canons and road blockades near Insadong, Sejong-ro and  Tapgol 's vicinity in Jongno is what I clearly remember until today. My first Korean vocabulary aside from greetings and daily survival Korean included words such as 전쟁 (war),  반대 (against), 평화 (peace), 지원 (support/aide), 집단 항의 (mass protests).;-) I know it is crazy but that was how things were back then and yes, this was the support of Koreans for Iraq at the time.

Then in 2004, we heard about the kidnapping and then beheading of a Korean, Kim, Sun-il, a young man working as a translator in Fallujah. Kim was fluent in Arabic, holding a graduate degree in Arabic from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS/외대). He also had degrees in English and theology and  I still remember how tense that whole month was - before and after this horrible incident. Every day, at the university entrances and at various places all over the city I saw the banners and Kim's photographs, candle light vigils and Citizen's Groups visiting the embassies of Muslim countries in and around Itaewon. Extra police force was deployed at the diplomatic missions from Muslim countries and also their residential areas alongside Seoul mosque to counter any attack by locals but nothing of sort happened to the Muslims living in Seoul.

Among other significant events was the kidnapping of Korean missionaries in Kandahar, Afghanistan in July 2007. Pakistan was one of the central countries at the time helping in negotiations etc. and every day people used to gather in front of Pakistan embassy demanding the release of those missionaries held by Taliban because they thought (and rightly so), that some groups in Pakistan have had strong ties. Unfortunately, two men among the 23 hostages were beheaded by Taliban however, the rest of them were released. Not just that Korea called its military personnel back but it is said that they paid about 20 million dollars as ransom.  Huge rallies were held all over Korea to call troops back but Muslim community was not attacked per se.

Actually, 2 years ago, I met a lady from this same church, Saemmul Presbyterian Church, in Bundang and she told me that she often goes to Afghanistan and honestly, at that moment I was thinking that isn't  it still a very dangerous place for anyone irrespective of their religion or country.

So, what has actually changed over the years with respect to the perception of Koreans towards the Muslims? I think that Koreans had a very positive image of Muslim countries and Muslims in general. Historically, it's said that interaction between Koreans and Muslims can be traced back to the 7 Century A.D during Shilla Kingdom, however others claim that Muslim merchants came for the first time in the 9th Century A.D. and overall, there is nothing negative on that but then the history of Muslims or of Islam in Korea is not a well researched area. It never could garner enough interest of the locals to dig deeper and there are very few people and universities that offer studies and courses on Islam. Nevertheless, in recent years, for several reasons, young Koreans are quite interested in the Middle Eastern Studies, Arabic language, Islamic studies and Islamic law. I hope that things will change fast. Recently, one of my friends asked me if I could help her getting a loan from some Islamic bank for the mere fact that there is 'No Interest' on the loan.See. How things work these days and how certain ideas and ways of doing business create interest.

Last but not the least, if we look at the contemporary history of Korea, then the participation of Turkish forces during the Korea War (1950-1953) has a great impact on Koreans. It earned a lot of respect for Turks in particular and Muslims in general. Turkish soldiers fought side by side with South Koreans under the UN with the second largest contingent after the Americans.
Turk soldiers on front-line during the Korean War

 The Turkish Brigade” also known as the Anatolian Lions entered the war in late Nov 1950, at almost the same time as Communist Chinese Forces started fighting on the side of North Korea. They lost 741 men and 2, 246 men got wounded, 237 were made POWs  and 175 missing in action - it is the highest combat casualty rate of any UN unit involved in the Korean War. Some of the accounts can be read here.

Another reason for Koreans to have interest in the Muslim world and having have a positive image is via  a large number of Korean construction workers who have lived and worked in the Middle East in 1960s and 1970s during the oil boom that the region saw. Middle East's oil booms was Korean  construction companies boom too and that is how these workers ended up there. I have met a couple of taxi drivers who told me that they have worked in Saudi Arabia and UAE and also shared their experience of living in those countries and they only had positive things to say.

10 years ago, people in Korea upon hearing that I'm from Pakistan used to talk of Field Hockey or of mountaineering in Pakistan but now, the first thing I hear are the words such as:Taliban, jihad, Osama bin Ladin or terrorism. That is indeed sad. I think that the main reason is that the images they see in today's world of media either electronic or print - what they hear with respect to the Muslims or Muslim countries or Islam is strongly overshadowed by the American influence on Korean media. Korean media never made any effort to liberate itself from the shadow of the mainstream American narrative. America is at odds with the Muslim world hence, what can one expect.

Moreover, in recent years some very unfortunate events have also happened and I've already highlighted a few of them. With all these ups and downs, a couple of my Korean friends from Yonsei are now happily working in Dubai for joint venture companies and believe me that they have no plans to return to Korea. Many of them have memorable trips to North African and other iddle Eastern countries and they loved it. I'm not saying that the Muslim world doesn't have problems but what I mean to say is that generalizations and stereotyping is not a good idea.

 I'd suggest visiting Itaewon - a Muslim neighborhood of Seoul, it has a lot to offer - a cocktail of diverse but rich Muslim culture right in the heart of Seoul. How about taking a trip down there and witness it yourself?

Anyways, all we need is a platform where we can exchange views, share our thoughts and  try to understand each-others point of view. That can make a hell of a difference.