Korean men like Arab girls

The crescent moon over Itaewon

In 1965 there were 3,500, today around 200,000 Muslims live in South Korea. Living together is unproblematic; however, the image of Muslims is clouding under the impression of the terrorist attacks.

The main mosque of the Muslims of South Korea is clearly visible on a hill in the middle of the old district of Itaewon in Seoul. The mosque with its distinctive dome has two tall, slender minarets, and the tiled outer facade is decorated with blue geometric patterns that are typical of Islamic ornamentation. Not only because of its size, but also because of its unusual appearance, the building clearly stands out from its surroundings and thus attracts curious glances.

The mosque has two separate prayer halls for men and women and a school called "Prince Sultan Islamic School - Seoul". Children of Muslim parents receive Koran lessons here. The Islamic cultural center is also affiliated. Halal supermarkets, restaurants for Muslims, Turkish kebab shops, Islamic bookshops and travel agencies offering Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, have set up in the adjacent streets and alleys.

The Turks in the Korean War

Itaewon is considered to be the oldest foreign neighborhood in Seoul. It all began after the Korean War with the American military, which had its headquarters nearby. Despite the good location and the mania for renovation, the area around the mosque has remained unchanged. The power lines hang confusedly over the narrow streets. Many migrants live here next to students and artists because of the low rents. Numerous fortune tellers and marginalized social groups are also at home. The blue glowing mosque, which was inaugurated with many celebrities on May 21, 1976, symbolizes the changeful relationship between the Muslim countries and Korea. - Unlike the Christian faith, whose news reached Korea as early as the 18th century, Islam did not enter the country until the 20th century. There are isolated reports in the old court chronicles that tell of Arab traders. But such encounters hardly left any traces. The first Korean to accept Islam did so in 1932. Korea was then a colony of Japan, and several hundred people from Islamic Turkic peoples who lived in Manchuria settled in Korea with the tolerance of Japan.

The Korean Muslim called himself Shamil Park and died in Turkey in 2005. Since the Muslims left the country after Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, the trace of Islam was lost again. It was Turkish soldiers who participated in the Korean War as part of the UN troops who brought Islam to Korea again in 1950. The Turks ran orphanages and got involved in devastated South Korea to help people. Although the impact of Turkish proselytizing remained limited, some Koreans who later played an important role embraced Islam. After all, 70 Korean Muslims came together in 1955 to found the Association for Korean Muslims. Ten years later there were around 3,500 Muslims in Korea.

It was only with the economic integration that a real relationship with the Islamic countries emerged, namely at the end of the 1960s, when Korean companies carried out construction contracts for the rich countries in the Middle East. In the decades that followed, nearly two million Koreans worked there temporarily to earn foreign currency for their fatherland. Because Korea was poor and dependent on oil. President Park Jung Hee tried to maintain good relations with the Islamic countries. With this goal in mind, the government made the land available for a mosque to be built. Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries financed the construction that now serves as the main mosque for the Muslims in Korea.

However, the situation changed in the late 1990s when workers from Muslim countries began to immigrate to now developed Korea. They came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Most of them are employed in agriculture and industrial areas where Koreans no longer want to work. The number of Muslims has also increased through marriage. Today there are 143,500 immigrant Muslims in Korea, who make up about 10 percent of the migrants. If one also includes illegal migrants and the approximately 35,000 Korean Muslims, there are a total of around 200,000 people who profess Islam. The new word "Koslim" shows that Muslims have now arrived in Korea, even if they are a marginal minority.

Since it is historically unencumbered, Korea's image in Muslim countries has a positive connotation, also thanks to "Hallyu", the wave of Korean popular culture that has been sweeping around the globe for some time. Korean pop groups, films, and television dramas are popular in the Islamic world. Many students come to Korea to study. Conversely, one can learn Arabic at universities and schools in Korea, which has been recognized as a second foreign language since 2004.

Korea also goes to great lengths to attract Muslim tourists. There are 140 halal restaurants in Korea. In addition to halal menus, many top hotels offer prayer rugs and a compass (Mecca!). Large university and private clinics maintain their own prayer room to attract medical tourists. In 2013, 624,000 Muslim tourists came to Korea and the number is steadily increasing. Korean companies have long since discovered Muslims as consumers and have special products such as smartphones with built-in compass and washing machines with an extra gentle cycle for hijabs in their range.

Korea is considered a very tolerant country in terms of religion. In addition to the local Buddhism, countless other beliefs are represented. The Muslims form part of this diversity and live without creating much conflict. It was not until the terrorist attack in New York that the Koreans were shocked to look at the Muslims for the first time. America is a close ally and the largest Korean minority lives there. Since then, there has been frequent media coverage of the conflicts in the Middle East. Usually the perspective of the West is reproduced unfiltered, so that the image of Muslims is increasingly colored negatively.

Since Korean tourists are everywhere today, the possible threat of terrorism is also an important topic in politics and the media. In 2015, there was a lot of talk about an 18-year-old Korean who disappeared on a trip to Turkey in January and is said to have joined IS in Syria as a jihadist. The circumstances surrounding his disappearance are completely unclear, and he is now considered missing. But the problem of Islamic terror in Korea as a whole is seen as that of a cultural clash between Muslim countries and the West. The current refugee crisis in Europe remains a distant event.

Resistance is forming

Only a few Protestant groups in Korea oppose the Muslims and warn against the “Islamization of Korea”. The Council of Presbyterian Churches in Korea has a department that trains critics of Islam. They are intended to point out the dangers of Islam. These churches themselves maintain their own mission center for Muslims. These groups are currently trying to prevent a government project: the government wants to set up a “food cluster” in the south of Korea, which will also include a halal food center. Since some Korean companies are already exporting food to Muslim countries, the government wants to encourage investment here. Now Christians are mobilizing against it. There is a danger that a ghetto will form and terrorists will settle there. The government contradicts this and says it is not necessary for Muslims to work there.

In 2015, Turkey agreed to build a new, larger mosque on the site of the current one. The news was well received in South Korea, but given the turmoil in Turkey, it remains to be seen whether the promise will be kept. The Erdogan government rarely lacks the money for mosques.