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Misconceptions on Arabs

Misconceptions on Arabs



Ambassador Abdullah A. Al-Aifan

By Kim Se-jeong
Staff Reporter

During his two-year of stay as an ambassador in Korea, a fast-growing country, the Saudi Arabian ambassador finds Koreans' perception of Arabic and Islamic culture rather slow to change.

For Ambassador Abdullah A. Al-Aifan, "Korean people's perception of Arab and Islam are marred with distortion and misunderstanding," and that must change.

Since the two countries opened diplomatic relations in 1962, both countries have become important trading partners - Saudi Arabia the fourth largest trade partner to Korea, and Korea the third largest partner to Saudi Arabia. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last year, bilateral trade reached $25 billion.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil supplier to Korea, while Korea has become a big investor in construction plants there.

Other than thriving economic liveliness, there hasn't been much shared, nor known about, between the two, compared to other states.

And when a direct encounter actually occurred, the impression was rather destructively dramatic.

Last year, a group of 23 Korean missionaries who were in Afghanistan on a mission trip, were kidnapped by the Taliban, a group of Islamic fundamentalists. Two Koreans were killed and the remaining 21 were released.

A few years back, there was also one Korean worker who was kidnapped in Iraq and beheaded.

The incidents ignited uproar nationwide in Korea, leaving little room for understanding. They just jumped to the conclusion, called mistaken by the ambassador, that Islamic countries are dangerous and Muslims are terrorists.

Wearing an uneasy look on his face, Al-Aifan said, "They are just an individual group. If you had a good understanding of Islam, you would not be easily convinced of a link between the incident (kidnappings) and the religion."

He continued, "It is forbidden even to destroy a tree according to Islam. There are many examples to show how merciful this religion is."

The incidents propelled the Korean government to take initiatives to promote understanding of Arab and Islam culture among the general public.

The first result is the Arab-Middle East Association.

As non-governmental organization, the association is sponsored by the governments of Korea and Arabic and Islamic countries, and the official unveiling will be in May.

A press release explains the promotion of Arab and Moslem culture and heritage as the goal of the organization.

"Focusing on economic ties would be rather limited and short-sighted, whereas exchange and cooperation based on cultural understanding will open up wider doors and express Korea's sincere willingness for a long-term and closer relationship," the press release read.
Al-Aifan also welcomed the efforts by the Korean government, saying, "such efforts will receive similar support and cooperation from Arab and Islamic states."

One project Saudi Arabia has been keen to promote Islamic culture in Korea is a Moslem elementary school, which is going to take its shape next year.

Named after the Saudi Crown Prince who committed to this very project after he visited Korea 10 years ago, Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Elementary School withdrew the qualification of being Moslem to attend.

Allowing students of any religion under the Korean accredited curriculum with some instruction in Islamic culture and the Arabic language, the ambassador said the institution will "contribute to strengthening efforts to achieve a greater knowledge of Arab and Islamic culture in Korean society."

More so as Muslim population in Korea - of both foreign and Korean nationals - is slowly changing to the rise.

Kim Hwan-yoon of the Korea Muslim Federation said an average 300 new Koreans convert to Islam every year.

The population of foreign Muslims is also rising, Al-Aifan said, although the precise number is difficult to pinpoint. One obvious witness is shown at the Mosque which he visits every week to worship. "I see more people now than two years ago when I just got here."

According to the Korea Muslim Federation, 35,000-40,000 Koreans practice Islam in Korea and 110,000-120,000 foreign Muslims are currently living in Korea. There are nine mosques in Korea.
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