Most Muslims living in Korea think that South Korean people’s general level of understanding about Islam improved a lot after the 9/11 attack. However, there is still a long way to go before Koreans fully understand what Islam is, according to Muslims here.
``Since the 9/11 terrorist attack, so many Koreans have visited our mosque to satisfy their curiosity about Islam that we started giving open lectures on Islam to the public in the weekend,’’ said Abdul Raziq Sohn, president of the Korea Muslim Federation.
Sohn said that as Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon is the only mosque in Seoul, it became a kind of tourist destination for non-Muslims to come and learn Islam on Saturday and Sunday.
Actually, if you walk down the main street of Itaewon around noon on Friday, it is easy to find the way to Seoul Central Mosque because so many Muslims go to the mosque as a group or on their own.
Every Friday, about 800 Muslims get together to pray at the Seoul Central Mosque, most of whom are foreign Muslims working here as diplomats, businessmen, migrant workers or students. The Friday prayer at the mosque is, therefore, a time when Muslims gather for a weekly meeting.
Sohn, who also teaches Arabic at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said most Koreans now have basic knowledge of Islam due to Sept. 11 and its aftermath but noted that there is still a lot of prejudice and misunderstandings about Islam.
Raja Saifful Ridzuwan, second secretary of the Malaysian Embassy in Seoul, echoed the same view by giving examples.
``Sometimes I am served a pork dish by Koreans who know that I am Muslim,’’ Ridzuwan said, pointing out many Koreans’ basic lack of knowledge that Muslims do not eat pork.
In addition to lack of knowledge, the Malaysian diplomat also indicated Koreans’ lack of understanding of other religions and cultures.
Whenever his wife, dressed in traditional Muslim costume, which covers her entire body except her face, goes shopping in downtown Seoul, she feels uncomfortable because people automatically stare at her.
A more complicated example is the story of a Muslim-Uzbek worker who came to Korea as a trainee worker under the South Korean government’s training program for Asians.
The Uzbek worker was unfortunately assigned to a pig farm even though Muslims must not raise pigs for slaughter according to their religious rules. After spending two years raising pigs, the worker called the mosque for help.
``The Uzbek worker cried and felt he had sinned by raising pigs,’’ Kim Hwan-yoon, director of audit and inspection of the federation, said. ``That kind of incident signifies Korea’s negligence over Muslims.’’
However, the more serious problem Kim pointed out was absence of a school for Muslim children in South Korea.
``Muslim children have difficulty attending a Korean primary and secondary school because they are treated like aliens in those schools just because they are Muslims,’’ Kim said.
In any Korean school where students are provided with school meals, the special diet of Muslims naturally draws attention from Korean students who know little or nothing about Islam.
In most cases, Muslim students in primary school end up being alienated from Korean friends, Kim added.
``And if Muslims go to international schools, problems still exist because most foreign schools are based on Christianity,’’ Kim said.
This problem has prompted the federation to establish a Muslim school, an idea that receives great support from the Muslim community.
Soekarddy Haji Abdullah Sani, second secretary of the Brunei Darussalam Embassy in Seoul, said, ``It is a very good idea to set up a Muslim school in Seoul.’’
Mohammad Sherazul, who came to Korea four months ago, said that he was surprised to find Koreans have little consideration for Muslims.
Sherazul remembers well the first day he worked in a Korean office in Puchon because his Korean employer criticized him for praying during work hours. Then, Sherazul explained to his boss that Muslims must pray five times a day, and he is now free to do prayer.
``Our special diet and regular prayer is not a real prejudice rooted in Koreans here,’’ he continued. ``It is understandable in the eyes of Koreans.’’
Yet, Muslims say that those examples of lack of knowledge about Islam are not the real problem because it takes only a little time for Koreans to learn Islamic rules and customs.
``The real problem is that they have a negative image of Islam, for example, that Muslims are warlike people, which is really hard to fix,’’ Kim said.
Korean-Muslims ascribed the misunderstandings of Koreans about Islam to old education, which taught that Muslims have a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other hand to conduct jihad or holy war.
It is this misunderstanding that Muslims believe brought flaming anti-Islam sentiment against Islam in Korea when South Korean interpreter Kim Sun-il was killed by Iraqi insurgents in June 2004.
The Seoul Central Mosque received lots of threatening phone calls and some men tried to enter the mosque with a sword in their hand, forcing the police to provide protection around the mosque for months.
``Islam is a peace-loving religion and there is not a single word encouraging war in Islam’s book,’’ Abdul Rahman Lee, director of education department of the federation said.
In fact, Muslims noted that jihad was wrongfully translated as holy war in English because the real definition of jihad is all the activities and effort Muslims exert in order to follow words of God.
But they saw the current boom of Islam here as a good opportunity for Koreans to better understand the religion and its 50-year history in Korea.
The federation estimates there are some 100,000 Muslims living in Korea, and about 70 or 80 percent of them are foreigners.
Sources: The Korea Times 05-29-2005