An afternoon prayer call sounding from the Central Seoul Mosque drowns out the ambient blare of storefront K-Pop and shouts of taxi drivers as Seoulite Muslims scale the steep cobblestone path to gather together in worship.
The cookie-cutter framework of modern urban Korean architecture gives way all at once to colossal columns and arches that hover impressively over Itaewon, the neighborhood itself a testament to the contained, yet explosive expansion of multiculturalism in Korea in recent years. Other prominent cultural communities of the area are largely based on parameters like ethnicity and language, while the Muslim community of Seoul is diverse in and of itself, creating a very small but dynamic subculture decorated with influence spanning dozens of countries, evident among the array of faces, languages, and accents layered beneath the uniform hijabs and prayer sets.
Islam only began to have any significant presence in Korea toward the late 1990s, largely due to immigration restrictions loosening at that time. Today, the majority of Muslims in Korea are students, teachers, and migrant workers, and only a fraction of Korea’s 135,000 Muslims are native to Korea, roughly 30,000-35,000 people — a figure that hasn’t risen drastically in the last 30 years.
“I had no exposure to Islam until a few years ago, but it created a curiosity in me,” one recently converted Korean said. “I began to study and become more dedicated, and realized there is a community of Koreans who practice Islam.”
Dyas Reda Kenawy is an Indonesian woman earning her PhD in Korean Culture and Language, and she says that this curiosity is a simple yet major factor in the number of Koreans converting to the religion. “Some Koreans are bored with life without religion. Modern Koreans don’t really have a strong link to religion. So they begin to explore new religions online, and for some, it leads them to our mosque.”
The Korean convert admits that it’s a huge decision in Korean society to convert to something so unfamiliar, noting that any true growth of Islam in this country will likely continue to be a result of immigration to the heavily Buddhist, Christian, or otherwise agnostic nation.
“As a Korean, I can say I think we don’t particularly try and understand other cultures,” he said. “My curiosity is uncommon.”
His observation may be narrow, however. As you walk through the grounds of the Seoul Mosque, Korean tourists buzz around every corner, cameras slung over their shoulders. Kids litter the steps that sweep up to the prayer hall itself, sliding down the handrails and chasing after one another through groups of girls posing for the perfectly executed photo in front of the impressive backdrop. Lifelong Seoulites line up for a tour group, gazing up at the domes above.
“I don’t know anything about Islam, we just never have been to the mosque, and it’s very beautiful. I’m curious now,” one local said as she rushed off to join a tour group. Other Korean visitors proudly called the mosque one of Seoul’s “hidden gems.”
Kamal Singh, an Itaewon local since 2009, said the Muslim community doesn’t really see any problems other cultural groups wouldn’t face in a foreign city. He said that to an extent, one doesn’t just immigrate to Seoul without the expectations of some cultural barriers and inconveniences.
“In the years I’ve been in Seoul, I’ve come to this same halal shop, but many, many more have come up, along with restaurants and shops catering to Muslims, and the area is busier than ever,” he said. “The community itself is growing slowly and steadily, but also smoothly because the purpose of Islam is to spread peace, and the Koreans here are receptive to that. It makes for an interesting time to live here, to see the growth of a cultural identity.”
Any discrimination or persecution is ideologically driven, and highly targeted. The Korean convert specifically asked not to be mentioned by name because according to him, there have been several recent incidents during which members of Christian extremist groups have interviewed worshippers at the mosque and used responses out of context “to slander” the Seoul Muslim community. The atmosphere is suspicious, and many worshippers are now wary of visitors to the mosque.
This sort of negative propagation is incredibly damaging to a community that already experiences heavy misperception from Koreans. Professor Hee Soo Lee, in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Hanyang University, claims that Koreans lack a basic understanding of Islam, and actions like those of the Christian extremist groups are major catalysts that contribute to what he calls “Islamophobia,” especially in the absence of qualified manpower to propagate the Islamic message properly: “[There is] ignorance of Islam among Koreans due to distorted information,” Professor Lee said. “Furthermore, negative ‘image-making’ by the radical Christian groups and media of the West.”
Several students have had similar experiences. “From the very first year I’ve lived in Korea, extremist missionaries will knock at my door,” said Medihah, a Malaysian student at Hanyang University. “At first, they ask very simple questions, but then suddenly they’ll become very aggressive and try and debate with me, get me to say something I don’t mean — it’s very disturbing.”
The community has actively sought to bridge this cultural disparity, with significant help and support from local embassies and offices within the Korean government itself. Shaukat Ali Mukadam, the Pakistani ambassador to Korea, said that the embassy hosts a number of cultural events throughout the year, including photographic exhibits and festivals, to encourage more intermixing and dialogue.
“Korean society has transformed in the last 50 years,” Mukadam said. “There’s been rapid development in multiculturalism, but we still don’t have that direct line of communication [with the Korean community].”
Representatives from the Malaysian embassy agree, but believe this relationship will develop. “There has been a gradual increase [in Muslim immigrants] over the years as Korea’s ‘hallyu’ has made outsiders more aware of Korea and its attributes,” said Sulochana K. Indran, a representative from the embassy. “The increasing number of foreign nationals entering the homogenous Korean society will of course pose challenges to both the foreigners and Koreans alike, but Koreans seem to be taking this inevitable globalization in their stride.”
Ambassador Mukadam also said that the Korean government is extremely sensitive to its growing foreign communities, and often assists the embassy in promoting cultural diffusion, a pledge that is controversial among many Koreans because of the budget allocated toward the endeavors, according to Hassan Abdou, founder of the Facebook community Arabs and Egyptians in Korea.
Abdou said that he resented the misperception of Islam among Koreans at first, but now he understands it. “[Koreans] only have the ideas the Western media gave them about Islam,” he said.
Korea itself only entered the global conversation in recent years, after all. Before Abdou moved to Korea, there was no K-Pop wave or K-drama craze. All he knew about the country was that his LG television in Egypt was made in Korea — but eight years later he calls Korea home, along with nearly 135,000 other Muslims.
Medihah and her friend Fadilhah, also a Malaysian student, both agreed their expectations of life in Korea paled to the reality. Before immigrating, they had both assumed they’d be less religious while living in a culture with so little Islam. “The surroundings and people — getting to know friends from other countries that are also Muslim — has made me a stronger Muslim, actually gotten me more interested in the religion,” Medihah said.
And walking up “Muslim Street,” it’s evident that this area is unique, Islam influence aside. Dotting the alley are Turkish kebab shops with their infamous ice cream servers entertaining passersby out front, Indian restaurants that fill the street with an aromatic swell of curry, bookshops boasting titles with languages from an array of Muslim countries, and Pakistani stalls showcasing gorgeous garments and shawls.
Dyas’s husband, in addition to his own travel agency, operates an Indonesian restaurant, Siti Sarah, decorated within by artwork from Egypt and other Islamic countries. A nod to his wife’s heritage, the restaurant was actually opened before the two of them had even met. “We laugh about it,” Dyas said. “He says that maybe God prepared it for [me].”
However, this intermixing of cultures that share the Islamic bond is uncommon in Seoul, and can actually be a hurdle to the growth of the Muslim community, according to Professor Hee Soo Lee. She claims that since the immigrants themselves often hail from largely homogeneously ethnic societies, they are less apt to thrive in communities of mixed nationalities. But it’s an obstacle immigrants like Dyas and her husband and Medihah and her friends are embracing and overcoming.
Sarah Hassan, who completed her graduate and postgraduate studies in Korea from 2002 to 2008, said that Islamic immigrants can thrive in Korea because it’s a country where everything changes fast and adjustments are made for the better. “Things are moving at a fast pace here in all spheres of life,” she said.
Hassan said that when she first moved to Seoul in 2002, she had to suspend her law studies since there was not a single program offered in English. Now, with the explosion of foreign students, from 7,000 in 2002 to more than 113,000 in Seoul in 2012, university offerings are more extensive than ever. Even the more trivial things that were incredibly difficult in 2002, like finding yogurt and cheese, are commonplace now.
Hassan, originally from Pakistan, said one of the more important aspects of Korea is that it is “very, very safe” for women. “It is safer than any Muslim country,” she said. “I’ve lived here without any fear that I would otherwise have to deal with back home.”
According to Dyas, the rapid growth of the community in Itaewon has created a stronger sense of religion for many Muslims. Even in the last five years, there are far more shops and the Islamic corner of Itaewon is busier than ever. “Even five years ago [Koreans] still saw me as strange,” Dyas said. “But in Seoul the people have grown so much more open-minded.”
Dyas has also lived in Gwangju, where the Islamic presence is slowly growing, and Busan, where there are many Indonesian migrant workers, attributed to a swelling influence.
The sheer growth of Islam in Itaewon is quantifiable, too. Dyas’s husband, a local business owner from Egypt, owns a travel agency licensed by the King of Saudi Arabia and the government to arrange the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj. The number of Muslims permitted to take the pilgrimage is set by the government each year, and that number is dependent on the percentage of a country’s population that is Muslim. For a country like Indonesia, 250,000 Muslims are granted visas to visit Mecca, whereas in Korea the number stands at around 150. The interest for Hajj is about 375% over capacity, however.
“It’s a healthy sign of growth for us,” Dyas said.
Dyas said that most of the challenges associated with practicing Islam in Korea come from a lack of awareness about Islamic customs among Koreans. For example, keeping to the prayer schedule traditional to the Muslim religion can be a challenge. In places like Indonesia, there are a lot of smaller mosques to help Muslims work in their prayer rituals around the pace of their 21st-century lifestyles. With just one mosque in Seoul, most Korean companies aren’t very sensitive to the prayer practice.
Medihah and her friends agreed, adding that the main outward aggravation they routinely experience is directed at their headscarves, or hijabs, attire entirely unfamiliar to Koreans. “We get a lot of people staring and asking why we wear it,” Medihah said, laughing. “It’s mostly just ajumas asking us if it’s too hot, and suggesting that we take it off.”
Koreans are beginning to understand Islam, however, according to Dyas. For years the media in Korea heavily portrayed it as a “terror religion,” but the perception has shifted. “Lots of the Koreans that live in Itaewon will address the Muslims they meet as ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ [which is a part of Islamic tradition],” Dyas said.
In this way, the impact of Islam is outpacing the population growth. A. Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa, Imam of Seoul Central Mosque, said that 9/11 actually greatly affected Korea in two ways. “At first, it was difficult because many understood Islam to be a terror religion,” he said. “But it also sparked a curiosity, a conversation.”
He said that Islam hadn’t spread much to Korea because it simply wasn’t on the radar; there was little knowledge of it at all. Professor Lee Hee-Soo agreed, saying that post-9/11 many Korean people did try and understand the Islamic world, and tried to do so through a balanced platform, not necessarily relying on Western media.
“Korea is becoming an international power, with its citizens traveling more and foreigners integrating here,” A. Rahman Lee said. “So international events affect the country more and more.”