After watching several Korean dramas, I was highly intrigued by South Korean culture and the idea of Korean Muslims seemed fascinating. Curious, I explored further and the findings were pleasantly surprising. The South Korean society consists of 0.3% Muslims and Islam was first introduced to the country in the 9th century! However it resurged only in the 20th Century with Turkish troops supporting the country in the Korean war of 1950-1953. Balancing the Confucian values rooted in South Korean culture with the often contrasting Islamic values and traditions is a real struggle Muslims of this country face.
Being in a minority is challenging especially when halal food is difficult to find and drinking is a major part of the culture. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Imam A.Rahman Lee Ju-Hwa of Seoul Central Mosque recalled that when he embraced Islam in 1984, his friends couldn’t comprehend the concept of not drinking and Islam in general. They eventually understood it, he added.
This acceptance could be attributed towards greater exposure of South Koreans to other cultures and religions, or to the South Korean government’s initiative to create a Muslim friendly environment in major cities like Seoul for promoting tourism. With a drop in the number of Chinese tourists, South Korea increased its halal certified restaurants and prayer rooms to attract Muslim tourists. While the intention may be to capitalize on the unexplored economic potential in tourism, this in turn has helped the Muslims of South Korea in practicing their religion slightly more comfortably. The move however evoked displeasure among the general public, especially Christians, who viewed it as a way to ‘Islamize’ South Korea.
Notably, though Koreans are accepting and courteous towards Muslim tourists, the same can’t be said for Korean Muslims. While hospitality and politeness is engraved in Korean tradition, Koreans aren’t too fond of changes in their culture and hence the discrimination. To give a few examples, honoring the age hierarchy in South Korea is a part of etiquette, however Islam supports friendly interactions among brothers of different age groups or backgrounds. Bowing before elders is considered respectful in Korean culture, but bowing before anyone except Allah is prohibited in Islam.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ola Bora Song, who converted to Islam 12 years ago, shared how most Koreans had a stereotypical image of Islam. Muslims are associated with violence and terrorism due to the media’s negative portrayal of Islam after 9/11 and the 2007 South Korean Hostage Crisis in Afghanistan.
Bora Song formerly conducted lectures in the Seoul Mosque explaining interested Koreans how Islam is a religion of peace and respect.
“Some people who had preconceived ideas about the religion would come to me after my lectures and tell me how sorry they were for not knowing.” she shared. According to her, from the average crowd of 1000 to 2000 people who attended her lectures around 10% dug deeper and considered converting. The curiosity of Koreans in Islam may be ascribed to the strong concept of brotherhood and disregard to class system encouraged by the religion. Growing number of marriages between immigrant Muslims and Koreans could also be a contributing factor.
While various challenges still exist, Muslims of South Korea are successfully building their own identity in the society. They are trying their best to shed light on the beauty of Islam and though it might take time, their efforts will definitely bear fruit eventually.