A Korean Muslim prays in Seoul Central Mosque, following the tradition of the religion. Many Korean Muslims here find it difficult to pursue their religious life style. / Korea Times Photo by Wang Tae-seog
By Bae Ji-sook
What is it like to be a Korean Muslim in Korea? ``Not easy would be an understatement,'' was the response of Hasna Bae, a 23-year-old student.
Bae is one of 35,000 Korean Muslims in the country, and one of 1.6 billion in the world. Although the religion is very big worldwide, there are few Muslims in Korea. There are migrant Muslim workers, but the total number barely reaches 200,000.
Being a minority religion in Korea, Muslims say their different lifestyle makes them stand out more than others in society.
Yu Hyun-il, 22, serves as president of the Islamic students' association of the Hankook University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul. He said he found the Muslim eating requirements the most difficult thing for him.
``It was hard for me not to eat pork. Also we are only allowed to eat meat that is prepared in a certain way,'' he said. In restaurants, he has a limited choice because of the ingredients_ he eats fish and vegetables most of the time.
The ban on drinking is also a problem. ``When people go drinking, they leave me out. If I go with them, my not drinking can sometimes make the whole atmosphere go weird,'' he said.
A 51-year-old businessman confessed that he drinks one or two glasses sometimes. ``You can never do business here without drinking,'' he said.
Praying five times a day is also strange for some people. ``Some people find my facing Mecca when I pray strange,'' a student said.
However, their biggest concern is prejudice toward this rather unfamiliar religion. After the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, many people showed an interest in Islamic ideas, but most are ignorant about it.
``We are not terrorists, but love peace. We are just like the girl next door,'' Hasna Bae said.
Bae, who first met Muslims when she went to learn English in the U.S., said her friends, family and acquaintances were against her decision to convert from Christianity to Islam.
People tried to tell her how dangerous the religion is, citing acts of terror and violence some have caused. She explained that her religion bans any violence and the terrorists are in fact criminals regardless of their religious beliefs. ``Now people get astonished; but soon show more curiosity than hostility. That's better.''
Bae sometimes gets pictures taken of her in the subways when she wears her hijab, and her going to the Mosque is always treated as an extraordinary thing. ``And I don't get to have many male friends around. I think I intimidate them.''
Nowsdays Muslims in Korea face another issue. Taliban militants in Afghanistan, who claim to be pure Muslims, abducted 23 Koreans visiting their country and killed two of them. As 25 days have passed since the kidnapping, prejudice against the religion is resurfacing.
``There were some bomb threats to the Mosque and there are always police standing in front of the gate in case of an attack'' Bae said.
However, Lee Ju-hwa, director of the Korea Muslim Federation's Department of Dawah (propagation) and Education, said people are opening their hearts to the new religion. ``Before online forums were full of people accusing us. But now I see more trying to get an objective point of view and there are fierce debates, which is very encouraging.''
He asked non-Muslim Koreans to show an openness and acceptance toward the religion. ``We ban all kinds of violence, we do not oppress women and we are just like any other religious people craving for better life.''
Though life seems tough for Muslims, they say they are proud of their decision. Hasna Bae majored in metal design and is planning to work in that area. Will she hide her faith to get a job? ``Never. I do not want to work for a company that doesn't respect its employee's religion anyway.''
Korea Times Interns Park Soo-yeon and Lee Ye-ha contributed to writing this article _ ED.