The Seoul Central Masjid remains a hive of activity; even though the number of foreign Muslims in Korea has diminished from approximately 150,000 to 100,000 since the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis in the late 1990s, and new immigration laws are making it increasingly difficult for foreign workers to enter the country.
Adorned with gleaming blueand- white mosaic tiles, the Central Mosque perches Escher-like on top of a hill overlooking Itaewon. Home to the Korea Muslim Federation (KMF), this expanded three-story building that was built in 1976, consists of offices, classrooms, a boardroom, and a conference hall. The first and second floors have lodgings, where foreign laborers who cannot come to the mosque for prayers during weekdays, can stay over.
A. Rahman Lee, director of the KMF¡¯s Department of Dawah and Education, points out that the Central Mosque is not only a place of prayer. ¡°Dawah¡± or ¡°The Way¡± provides for the internal (soul and mind) and external (personal, family, social, economic, political, and international) nature of humankind.
A report about the present situation of Islam in Korea, supplied by Ahmad Cho, assistant secretary general at the KMF, shows that Dawah activities extend to a counseling service for underpaid, injured or illegal Muslim laborers, a regular Sunday Madrasah for local and foreign Muslim children, and lectures and seminars on Islam and the Arabic language for Muslims and non-Muslims. On the last Sunday of every month, a medical clinic with visiting doctors, provide treatment and medicine free of charge.
The Muslim religion and culture is still greatly misunderstood in Korea due to negative stereotypes of Arabs and Islam in the Western mass media and Hollywood movies, and because of a lack of information and knowledge. ¡°Muslims are not just terrorists,¡± quips Lee. The mission of the Department of Dawah and Education is to correct these misconceptions by translating, publishing and distributing Islamic material to the Korean public. Correct information is also provided to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources with the development of world history textbooks for students.
Ihsan Hibatulla Lee, a serious young female Korean Muslim working for the KMF, supports the view that ignorance needs to be eliminated. ¡°Foreign and Korean Muslims are often unable to live their true identity, be it on the school grounds or in the workplace. Muslim kids cannot mix with non-Muslim kids because their mothers wear the hijab. Fasting in the office during the month of Ramadan is often difficult and education on kindergarten level poses a problem because Korean kindergarten classes are more than often Christian-orientated.¡±
The Korean education laws do not allow for the establishment of Muslim schools. Shariq Saeed, president of a leading export company in Seoul and part-time counselor at the Central Mosque, mentions that Muslim students are limited to the choice of attending expensive international schools or studying at public Korean schools, where cultural and communication barriers hamper the Muslim students¡¯ development.
International marriages between foreign Muslim men and Korean women are becoming more common these days. Islam does not allow couples to live together, so factory workers from especially Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and North Africa, tie the knot in the Central Mosque. Two to three international weddings a week is the growing norm.
The profile of a Muslim-Korean marriage tends to have the following characteristics.
He is a young, poor Muslim factory worker. She is an older Korean woman often divorced from her Korean husband. Money, not love, is more than often the determining factor. The prospect of Korean nationality that makes traveling in and out of the country easier and doing business less hazardous, drive some foreign Muslim men to marry in Korea, even though there is already a wife back home.
Korean women that convert to Islam often have a Buddhist or non-religious background. But conflict does arise because Islam forms an integral part of daily life. Saeed tries to counsel prospective couples at the mosque about Islam before they get married. The foreign Muslim men work long hard hours and do not have the time to teach their Korean wives about Islamic practices.
According to Imran Khan, a factory worker from Pakistan, that has been living in Korea for three years, foreign Muslim men find it difficult to get accustomed to the idea of handing their salaries over to their Korean wives. In the Muslim culture it is the husband that handles the finances, not the wife. These men are stuck in a no-go situation.
Divorce is not an option, because their wives threaten to go to immigration to declare their illegal status. And that is the last thing a foreign Muslim worker wants: life in Korea will always be better than back home.