Itaewon, the district of Seoul most popular with international expats and tourists, feels more like South Boston than South Korea. Enough pizza shops and fast food joints line the main street to rival most American city districts. And just outside, curbside vendors compete with each other to sell their fake Supreme t-shirts, knock-off NBA jerseys, and “authentic” Gucci handbags.
But just several minutes walk from the main road lies something many people would be shocked to see anywhere in South Korea: a mosque.
On approach, you are struck immediately by the shift from Western-centric shops to Arab and South Asian. Hangul-Korean writing on the storefront awnings becomes progressively less common, as it is replaced by Arabic and even some Turkish. Instead of restaurants selling Cheeseburgers or Kimchi stew, there is a wide selection of falafel, kabob, and naan. More than a few travel agencies line the street; prominently displaying their specialization in assistance planning Hajj pilgrimages.
Seoul Central Masjid was established in 1976 when South Korean President Park Chung-hee – eager to forge alliances as the leader of a relatively new nation – offered the Korea Muslim Federation the land to build the country’s first mosque, hoping the gesture would curry favor with the Muslim world.
As President Park intended, many Middle Eastern nations provided monetary aid to the endeavor, the majority of it coming from Saudi Arabia. The significant Saudi influence in the mosque’s establishment is clear in its appearance, with its distinctive white stone minarets shooting up on either side of the entrance. On the entrance wall reads the Shahada (in both Arabic script and Korean): “There is no God but God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” To this day, it remains the largest mosque in all of Korea.
When I visited the mosque, I had the privilege to speak with the Imam A.Rahman Lee Ju-Hwa about Islam in Korea.
He told me that the perception of Korean Muslims, and of Islam in general among Koreans, changed drastically after the 2007 hostage crisis in which 23 Korean Christian missionaries were taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Imam himself went to the Afghan-Pakistan border to successfully facilitate the release of 21 of the hostages, and a significant portion of the Korean Muslim community publicly condemned the kidnappings as being against the principles of their faith. The Korean people noticed this, and, the Imam says, began to accept Islam as a part of the greater Korean identity.
Indeed, Korean Muslims still face problems fitting in due to some notable differences in their Islamic values and the Confucian values that comprise the basis of Korean society. The central focus on respect for elders in Confucianism, for instance, conflicts with the Islamic view that everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah. But according to Imam Lee Ju-Hwa, there is a general tolerance, and even a desire to understand Islam among Koreans.
Korean Muslims are also unique in that radicalism within their community is virtually nonexistent. Korea has never experienced a Jihadist terrorist attack, and every recorded instance of terrorist violence in the entirety of the nation’s history has been related to nationalist and pro-unification ideologies. Compelling arguments have been put forward suggesting that Korea has all of the necessary pre-conditions for a jihadist terrorist attack, and that one isn’t unlikely to befall the country in the near future. There have also been several foiled attempts at jihadist attacks in recent years (all of whom were foreigners), but none has been successful. Even for a nation with fewer than 150,000 Muslims, this is astounding.
The Imam believes that the lack of extremism in Korea’s Muslim community can be attributed to good Islamic education. He said that the Islam he preaches in his sermons is peaceful to its core, and that anyone who might become radicalized within his community would have failed to understand his teachings.
I ended our discussion by asking him, of all the misconceptions about Islam that he has encoutered in his life, what was the one he would most like to correct. He said it was the idea that Muslims cannot be assimilated into non-Muslim societies. And the statement he finished his answer with has stuck with me: “God created different tribes of people so that we could understand each other.”
If we all took this idea to heart, I’m confident that the serious problems our world faces today would start to appear much more solvable.