BY LESLIE FINLAY MARCH 13, 2014
Original image: Kian
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.
Curiosity is a simple yet major factor in the number of Koreans converting to the religion.
“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.”