By Seung-ku Lee –
On a recent afternoon, Muaz Razaq, a Pakistani student studying at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea, walks down an alley in the city’s Daehyun-dong neighborhood. As he moves through the twists and turns of the street, he is greeted by anti-Islamic signs and banners.
“Just like Europe, if (this) area becomes Muslim-concentrated, with slums and minimal public order, who will take responsibility?” reads one banner. Further down the alley, he walks by a refrigerator filled with severed pig heads.
The residents of the small neighborhood in northeastern Daegu have been using the carcasses and banners as a means of protest against a mosque being constructed in the area.
In 2020, Muslim students at KNU raised money amongst themselves to reconstruct an old house nearby campus and transform it into a place of worship. Residents in the neighborhood filed a complaint to the local district government, and construction was halted in 2021. Months later, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that the district’s decision to stop the construction was unconstitutional.
“It was worse before,” Razaq recounted, sharing pictures of banners calling Muslims terrorists and urging for their expulsion. “We are not imposing our culture on them, we just want a place to pray,” he added.
A growing community
Islam has been in Korea for decades. The religion first entered the country in the 1950s during the Korean War, and its first local converts professed their faith around the same time.
The Islamic community in Korea saw its biggest growth in the 1980s, when five mosques sprung up throughout the peninsula, and the local Muslim community grew to about 30,000. Today, the Korean Muslim Foundation estimates that South Korea is home to 25 mosques and approximately 200,000 Muslims.
The Muslim community in Korea has existed for the past half century without any major conflicts, but Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon. Imam Abdul Rahman Kim Ju-ae of the Grand Mosque, located in central Seoul, asserted that Islamophobia has been brewing locally since the early 2000s, when anti-Islam sentiment rose worldwide.
The imam cited events such as the murder of a Korean citizen by Iraqi Islamic militants in 2004, and the detainment of church missionaries in 2007 by the Taliban in Afghanistan as having contributed to creating a negative image of the religion.
“We have started becoming targeted by certain religious groups, but we don’t want to fight with them. We just want to practice our faith peacefully. Islam’s most important aspect is tolerance and coexistence,” the imam said.
‘If Daehyun-dong falls, Daegu falls’
The idea that certain groups are working to spread Islamophobia throughout the general population is common within the local Muslim community.
“There were third parties made up of Christian groups present at the mediation meetings, and they plant fear in the minds of our neighbors,” said Razaq when describing the protests.
He added that he believes the church leaders leading the protests worked to obstruct opportunities for mediation and used hateful methods of protest.
The conflict gained nationwide attention after local media outlets reported on the unconventional protest methods employed by the protestors.
The neighbors hosted a pork barbeque party in front of the mosque’s construction site, and left a pig’s head alongside a bottle of alcohol next to the property. The consumption of pork and alcoholic drinks are strictly forbidden in Islamic tradition.
Photo caption: A local Presbyterian pastor shouts at Muslim students during a rally against the mosque construction in Daehyun-dong, Daegu, South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Muaz Razaq)
Meanwhile, the neighbors claim that their protests are not Islamophobic. The vice president of the Daehyun-dong Neighbors’ Association Against the Construction of the Mosque, Kim Jeong-ae, argued that the neighbors were protesting because they were worried about noise pollution and discomfort related to people gathering. “We would have protested even if it were a church, or a Buddhist temple,” she said. “It’s not Islamophobia.”
“Why must the neighbors bear the burden when it was [the university] that brought the Muslim students?” she asked. “The street is privately owned, and the neighbors have a right to do what they want in front of their houses.”
But Razaq begs to differ. “Why would they say, ‘If Daehyun-dong falls, Daegu will fall?’ Why does building a mosque mean Daehyun-dong will fall?”
Disappointed, but hopeful
Other Muslims view the Daegu incident with disappointment, feeling as if there is no place for them in a largely homogeneous country.
“They don’t try to understand and learn what Islam really is. They think Islam is all about the extremism they see in the media,” said 24-year old Bangladeshi student Andrua Haque, who has lived in Korea for over 15 years.
In his time in Korea, Haque has seen his fair share of discrimination, but said that in the past it was mostly due to ignorance about Islam. But more recently, the discrimination has become more intense and direct. Two years ago, Haque was confronted by a middle-aged man on a bus who asked if he “was Taliban.”
When Haque shook his head, the man demanded to know if Haque was Muslim. When Haque said yes, the man broke into a chant. “We can’t have Taliban! We can’t have Muslims! You need to leave!”
Despite the incident, Haque said he remains hopeful. “On the bus that day, there were teenagers who stood up for me. They basically forced the man off the bus,” Haque recalled. The teenagers later approached him to apologize for the man’s action. “There is a lot of positivity. I see hope,” Haque said.
The hopeful sentiment can also be found in Daegu. “I do not generalize all Korean people as being good or bad,” Razaq said. He recalled that there were many individuals and organizations who have reached out to offer support. “These [neighbors] have a certain mindset, and that mindset is the problem,” he added. “There is hope.”