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South Korea Muslim



Muslim community finds refuge in religion

The Central Mosque in Itaewon was full to overflowing last Friday with men who represent the face of Islam in Korea. Hailing mostly from the sub-continent and southeast Asia, theirs is a story of hardship and struggle, as they flee poverty in their native lands to come here and fill the jobs that others would rather not do. Working long hours for little return, their faith is as central to their existence here as it is to those back home. Now, as Islam once more faces scrutiny and prejudice, labeled for acts of unspeakable barbarism, they grieve for those who have perished, while at the same time defending their faith against hostility and misunderstanding.

Speaking from the Itaewon mosque, which has been under tight security for the last week, Abdul Rashid Waesoho, an Islamic missionary from Thailand and member of the Korea Muslim Foundation believes the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were entirely political. "If religion was involved, we would have peace with each other," he said.

Waesoho, a bright-eyed, chimp of a man who has been in Korea since 1982, said while the incidents were not a focus of prayer last Friday, the Islamic community had reacted with grief to the tragedy. "The Imam gave a speech on Friday and said we feel sad about this tragedy and that this tragedy is not from Islamic teachings," he said. "Muslims believe that we have to do good deeds because we don't know when we are going to die."

Joining the condemnation was Walayo Bubiladalasono from Jakarta, Indonesia. "All religions in the world don't want this kind of tragedy," he said. "Muslims like me don't agree with this tragedy and American Muslims don't agree with it. I said a prayer last week. I want all people to be friends with Muslims."

With the Taliban militia calling for a jihad or holy war against the West, the Bush Administration, in an effort to curb a backlash against Muslim and Arab Americans, is at pains to distance Islam from the atrocities and insists that it is planning to wage a war on terorism rather than against the religion.

Mohammed Iqbal, a textile exporter from Beshawar, Pakistan, a country that has vowed to support U.S military action against terrorist forces in Afghanistan, shared such sentiments although he felt a military conflict should be avoided at all costs. "We want this situation solved without war, war will create more problems," he said.

In many ways, Iqbal, who moved to Korea two and a half years ago with his younger brother, is typical of many Muslims in Korea. He came here to work while leaving family back home. While saying he could understand Americans' desire for revenge, he urged that religion be left out of the current conflict. "Maybe it will be viewed as a war against Islam, but religion is separate. No religion promotes war, they're about peace whether in a mosque or a church."

The web master of, Mohammed Amar, a computer engineer from Morocco, agreed. "If it (war) means the killing of more innocent civilians, I am strongly against it," he said. "If it means the trial of those terrorists with evidence, following the rule of law, I am supportive. Personally, I feel sorry for the innocent civilians who died. But I will not support a blind retaliation against Muslims."

Amar said a Muslim friend of his had been in the second tower when the first plane had hit and had managed to evacuate, although he said he had friends who knew people that weren't so fortunate. He says it is likely that many Muslims were directly affected by the tragedies, while adding that the hijackers were not a good example of Muslims in their reported drinking habits.

Amar, noting that there had been reports that one of the hijackers was an Arab Christian, articulated the anger felt in the Islamic community concerning double standards applied by the media. "I am not happy to see that the half a million Iraqi children who died from sanctions didn't receive the same media coverage," he said.

While negative stereotypes of Arabs and Islam in the Western media and Hollywood movies have long been a source of frustration for Muslims, Amar said this had led to Islam being misunderstood here in Korea as well. "Islam is viewed badly in Korea because of a lack of knowledge of Korean people about Islam," he said. "One contributing factor is the bad stereotypes shown in the media."

According to Abdul Waesoho, many Koreans are influenced by Western propaganda that portrays Islam as evil. "They have an image of Muslims as fanatical terrorists with the Koran in one hand and a weapon in the other," he said. "On the other hand some Korean people do understand Islam and respect Muslims because they don't drink, don't go to nightclubs. Korean managers like Muslims because they are hard working."

Islam's history in Korea has been traced back to the Silla Dynasty when Persian and Arab traders came here from China. More recently, a small number of Koreans were exposed to the religion when they were moved to the Lo-long area in Manchuria under the Japanese colonial policy. A handful of those people returned home after World War II but didn't have a place to worship until Turkish troops arrived with the United Nations during the Korean War (1950-53). Korean Islam's inaugural service was held in September 1955, followed by the election of the first Korean 'Imam' (chaplain). The central mosque in Itaewon was established in 1976 and there are now five mosques around the country.

According to Amar, there are around 20,000 to 30,000 Korean Muslims and as many as 200,000 foreign Muslims mainly from Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh in Korea. Most are Sunni Muslims, although Waesoho said, "We Muslims, we think we are the same. Sunni, Shiite, these are distinctions made by man, not Allah."

Of the 600 or so people who flock to the Central Mosque on Fridays, Islam's holy day, Waesoho said a number of diplomats are regularly in attendance, although most followers were part of the so-called "3D" workforce, with jobs in factories or in construction. And for the most part, they are men with family and loved ones back in their native lands.

While life may be difficult for Muslims in Korea, Islam provides an essential focal point in their lives here, bringing a sense of community that any expatriate needs in a foreign country. "Every society has a different style of life," Iqbal said. "It's difficult to live in a non-Muslim society but if you follow the principles of religion, it's no problem. I think anywhere if you follow religion, you won't have a problem."


By Ben Jhoty Staff reporter


From The Korea Herald