For S.Korean Muslim, discrimination at home and abroad

Posted on : 2011-05-17 15:04 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
A growing population of Muslims in S.Korea struggles to find place in society
 April 26. (Photo by Kang Jae-hoon)
April 26. (Photo by Kang Jae-hoon)

By Song Kyoung-hwa 


Everything changed after that day. The early autumn sky was clear in New York City. At around 9 a.m., Yun Aliyah, now 36, was busy getting ready for classes in her one-person apartment on Queens Boulevard. She had a class that afternoon with the graduate school of fine arts at Queens College. “Oh, my God. Another plane just hit.” She had absent-mindedly turned on the radio and heard someone crying out. “Must be some new show,” she thought to herself. Ten stops away by subway, Yun had no idea what had happened. It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two years into her study abroad.

After the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the finger pointing began. Yun was walking down the street when a middle-aged Caucasian woman pointed to her forehead and cried, “You disgust me!” In her photography class, Yun received a C grade. Her Jewish professor hated the pictures she had taken on the theme of New York Muslims. She tried to find a job, but she failed over and over to get past any interviews. Finally, she managed to get a job as a guidance counselor at a private school. Later, the American who hired Yun told her, “My father was a Muslim.”

In the summer of 2001, just before the events of 9/11, Yun converted to Islam. She believes in the one God Allah and his prophet Mohammed, and practices salah, performing five prayers every day. During her days in university, Yun had sung hymns in her church choir. It was a Moroccan Muslim friend she met in New York who caused her to question her faith.

She ended up converting to a new religion. In place of the traditional Catholic head covering, she donned a hijab. Wherever she went, she covered her head and shoulders with a scarf. She told her Korean father about her conversion by Internet messaging: “I am a Muslim now.” Coming through over 11,000 kilometers at the speed of light, the response flickered on her monitor: “Why did it have to be Islam?”

After returning to South Korea in the summer of 2003, Yun began attending the Seoul Central Masjid in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood every Friday. There she took part in the Jummah, the Friday service. On her way to and from the mosque, she rode the subway and village buses dressed in a hijab, with long sleeves and a long skirt. People gawked at her. The same things that had happened in New York repeated themselves in Seoul. She went shopping at a local supermarket and a Korean man shouted at her, “Hey, Mohammed!” He showed her a “thumbs up” sign before slowly turning his thumb downward. “He was trying to insult me,” Yun said.

These days, Yun only associates with Muslim friends, most of them Korean. A total of around 130 thousand to 140 thousand Muslims currently live in South Korea. At least 35 thousand of them are Korean, while the remainder are international residents in the country through marriage, for employment, or for their studies. Their numbers are gradually increasing, including Koreans who independently decide to convert, others who convert after an international marriage, foreign-born Muslims who have gained South Korean citizenship, and the children born to these families.

In South Korea, a country that is less open to migrants, international marriage is a major channel through which Muslims settle in the country. To acquire citizenship, a person has to meet the conditions of being an adult who has resided in South Korea for more than five years, is capable to maintaining a livelihood, and is proficient in Korean. For someone married to a South Korea, the minimum residence period drops from five years to two.

According to an analysis by Professor Ahn Jung-kook of the Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs at Myongji University, around 5,000 Muslims have settled in South Korea through international marriage and naturalization. As their spouses generally also convert to Islam, this mean at least 10 thousand Muslim immigrant-Korean couples living in South Korea. Their children, too, become Muslims at birth.

“With the rising number of Muslims in South Korea, there are going to be cases where their religious common law clashes with the South Korean legal system, and the question is how South Korean society will embrace this,” Ahn said.

In the United States and Europe, Muslims are speaking collectively. South Korean Muslims are also beginning to make their voices heard. The ever-smiling Yun said, “I am a Korean just like anyone else.”

Her smile fading, she added, “I really can’t bear the contemptuous looks.”


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