Racism against the Muslim Community in Korea: Exploring the Daegu Mosque Construction Case
한국에서 무슬림 커뮤니티에 대한 인종주의: 대구 이슬람사원 건축 사례 탐구
“It is a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-style and tradition; in short, it is what P. A. Taguieff has rightly called a differentialist racism. “
21p, Etienne Balibar & Immanuel Wallerstein[i]
The Mosque built in 1976 is located in Itaewon in Seoul was not a famous place before migrant workers came from Islamic countries. In days not long past the places to pray for Muslims had been constructed by Turkish Muslim Army during the Korean War (1950-1953). Some people remember them as people who helped Koreans in the war. They built a Mosque for their religion and made School for Korean orphans. South Korean so often call the Turkish people “Our Brother by Blood”[ii] and their country an “Allied Nation”. However Koreans had not interest in their religious culture as Turkish Muslims who believe in ALLAH and live as Muslims. Even though the Korean government had made an economic relationship with Arabic countries and allowed construction the Mosque which was supported by Arabic countries. Islamic Culture and religion is not easily comprehensible to Korean Society. It is safe to say that before Muslim migrant workers came to Korea, Korean Society was indifferent to the Islam because it was a very minority religion.
However, Korean Society changed with the beginning of the system to hire migrant workers whom especially came from Islamic countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and so one. The more the number of Muslim migrants is increased, the more the Mosque and places to pray increase since 1990. In general Korean did not hold much hostility but carry prejudices or stereotypes about their religion because Muslims not eat pork meat and the perception that Muslim men can marry a number of women. But after 9.11 many things were changed by the legal system and the Media, causing Korean Society to take a stand against Muslim ways of worship and had considerable negative impact on Korean’s attitude to Muslim Migrant. Also the Conservative Christian Groups does hate speech and incite hatred against Muslim Migrants.
Furthermore, the Conservative Christian groups hate speech campaigns and incite hatred against Muslims during elections and establishing counterterrorism Law. Therefore given this background, we can see how the backlash against the Muslim community who are trying to build a Mosque for prayers in Daegu is not something new.
Hate speech group’s insist this opposition is grossly unfair and based on racism. In this situation we have to ask Korean Society or the local community what it means to be a member of a “community” and who can be a member of this community? Also we have to ask to each other in Korean Society who has the power to include or exclude people who live here. Furthermore we need to analyze the media, nationalism, religion, neo-liberalism and globalization to see how they to impact the Korean Society and lead to Koreans to have a negative attitude against Muslim. Therefore, this paper has the aim of considering how these ideological practices could make a community without community and determining the cause of racism against Muslims in Korean Society.
Enjoy diversity of Islamic Culture but fear a Muslim
Korean Society has an ambivalent attitude to Islam. One side shows engagement with aspects of multicultural diversity as an “exotic taste,” and the other links Islam to aspects of a terrorism violence and murder.
For example Islamic Culture festivals give Korean an enthusiastic welcome but the Islam as a religion gives Korean a heck of a fright. Last year Arab Cultural Festival was 13th[iii] and Arab Film Festival was 9th[iv]. Both of them are major events for Koreans. These festivals that anyone can enjoy are based on diverse culture and supported directly and are co-hosted by the embassies of the richest Arabic countries. The luxurious atmosphere, contemporary art exhibits and Arabic Food bring exotic and new experience to Korean society. Especially, the movies to be played on a screen at Arab Film Festival gives a chance to break out of a prejudices and stereotypes conveying to Korean audiences those Arab countries also care about woman’s rights, and that they have own big issues such as the conflict of Palestine and Israel. These movies are important, allowing audiences to gain an understanding of “real” Arabic life. Therefore these culture and film festivals overwhelmed the audience by sharing Arabic rich cultural identity. However, these festivals are showing only rigorously selected and beautifully events by the planner and co-hosted who fear trouble with Korean society. When the Yemen refugee issue in Korean Society, the young organizer of Arab Film Festival planned to invite me for GV and she asked me to talk about human rights. But after few days she informed me the GV was cancelled because the head of planner and co-host didn’t want to cause the Korean government and people any serious trouble. This case reveals the fact that these cultural diversity events often hide conflict and evade the problem of human rights. A journalist also easily report about culture but not about political and social issue in their newspaper. Unfortunately these cultural diversity events sometimes unintentionally bring out the effect of hiding racism that is inherent in Korean Society.
However, this inherent racism was exposed publicly In Korean Society when South Korean Soldiers were dispatched to Afghanistan and Iraq as the peacekeeping force after 9.11. Moreover, some Koreans were kidnapped and killed by Islamic militants after that many Korean people started to fear Muslim, this fear turning to obsession, eventually casting Muslims as terrorist. Events such as this kidnapping case strengthened negative attitude towards Muslim. Fake news was spread with false information that only focus on “Muslim violence”, created by YouTube creators and spread across Social medias. The spread of such fake news and negative discourse of some Korean affected Korean government policies for refugees their unreasonable treat of refugees[v].
Constructing a Mosque in Daegu
The number of Mosques and the places to pray has increased to about 140 places[vi]. This increasing in prayer spaces in or around universities related to an increase in Muslim students. Coming to the case of Daegu, the Mosque of Daehyeon-dong is located near to Kyungbuk National University and was constructed by the donation of Muslim students who need a bigger and new building for safety. Already they used to the place for pray for 8 years. Town’s local residents oppose constructing the Mosque [vii]and the local authority, Gu-Office who gave permission to build discharged their obligation to patch up the relationship between Muslim students and residents. The Pakistani owner of the building appealed to town residents that the Mosque is being constructed legitimately, meeting building codes. Furthermore Muslim students want to persuade residents that they want solve the problem peacefully. NGO Groups and Professors watching the situation confirmed that the background of this opposition are Conservative Christian forces creating hate speech and inciting opposition against Muslim Students. In recognition of this serious situation, the parties these groups recognized that need to share this issue and have an urgent discussion session to solve the problem.
In May the representative student from Nigeria. Professors of Kyungbuok University, NGO Activists and report of local newspaper in Daegu and I as a co-president of the Coalition for Establishing Anti-Discrimination Law participated in this discussion but without town’s residents. We explained the issue and searched for better solution to end conflict together. The Muslim students struggled to understand well why their neighbor suddenly started to hate them and the Mosque. On the other hand, Korean participants know well that this issue is related to urban redevelopment and their desire for increase of value of their house. Above all racism is a big problem as a certain Conservative Christian groups try to suppress expanding any congregation of Islam. This Daegu case is not the first and echoes the case of the Bupueong Mosque in Incheon in 2013.
Now many banners were posted on the walls, hanging banners hoisted in streets conveying hateful, anti-Muslim slogans. Furthermore, leaflets that including the fake news about Islam and Muslims were given out to public. This behavior Conservative Christianity groups is rooted in American Christian conservative[viii]. Not only do they imitate white supremacy and engage in racist practices, but they also oppose the establishment of the Anti-Discrimination since 2007. A big part of their opposition to establishing such laws is that they would clarify human rights for LGBTQI communities and migrants groups such as Muslim workers. Instead, Korean conservative Christian groups supported political parties that wanted to establish the Counter-Terrorism Law[ix] and opposed constructing the Complex of Halal Food Factory in 2016[x] and they insist to deport the Yemeni Refugees who arrived in Jeju Island in 2018.
In these days Conservative Christianity groups in Korea are facing as crisis they are blamed by the masses because of COVID-19 transmission cases linked to their activities, corruption and sex scandals in mega-churches[xi] so I suggest that they need a change of atmosphere to survive continually and religiously.
Therefore, the groups need a sacrifice who saves them in this crisis and need a target who is famed as the other, and can be hated by the public. These social issues lead the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to recommend to the State party in Korea to expedite the adoption of a comprehensive law that defines and prohibits directs and indirect racial discrimination on all prohibited grounds. And the Government takes measures to firmly combat hate speech and adopt a strategy and continue to monitor the media, Internet and social networks to identify individuals or groups who disseminate ideas based on racial superiority or incite to racial hatred against foreigners, investigate such acts and if convicted, sanction such individuals or groups with appropriate penalties. The Committee also recommends that the State party take steps to create an environment conducive to reducing the antagonism against migrants in the lager society and which facilitates the integration of migrants into society[xii].
Racism is clearly based on race, nation and class. In the case of Daegu, I have shown why the residents of the town oppose constructing the Mosque. They do not discriminate only because of different race or culture but keeping their poverty and religious purpose. The Daegu case is also rooted in a longstanding social background that relate to 9.11 along with distorted image of Islam as a terrorist religion made by Media and Conservative Christian groups. South Korea’s government declares that our society is multicultural and diverse but the reality of our society is that it is a community without community.[xiii] I say this because Korean community accepts others only in relate to Korean Family (migrant married to Korean and their children) and them to assimilate to Korean Society but the other migrants are excluded and divided by hierarchy according to a nation, skin-color, class and culture. Racism is both an ideology of a syncretism kind and a discriminatory social (including discursive) practice that could be institutionalized and backed by hegemonic social groups[xiv]. Above all Korean Society has an ambiguous attitude to Muslims who are welcomed such as a creator the Festival of Arab Movie or Exhibit of Arabic Culture but not as a practitioner of religious ritual. But Muslims do not or cannot always separate their culture and religion. Often, Islam permeates their daily life that is then framed as culture.
To conclude, Korean Society has to make efforts to improve the distorted attitude against Muslim and enact laws to prohibit the discrimination against a migrant. Daegu has a catchphrase as the Colorful City but not in this case. Therefore, the Korean Government needs to consider how to solve conflict such as the Daegu Mosque construction case, and one such way to do this is for the State party to establish Anti-Discrimination Law. Democracy is more important than nationalist ideology in Korean Society. As Benedict Anderson tell us that Nation is an imagined community[xv]. I think if Korean Society will make a community that include migrants and can co-exist with each other, if we can change our mind and behavior and follow his theory, this “Imagined” community can manifest into real.
정혜실 (이주민방송MWTV 웹진 편집위원)
- 이 글은 2021년 6월 6일 열린 ‘Muslim Social Studies International Symposium 2021- Muslims in Korea: Past, Present and Future’ 발표문입니다.
[i] Balibar, Etienne & Wallerstein, Immanuel, 『Race, Nation, Class: Ambigous Identities』, Verso, London, 1991
[v] 김기남 외, 『난민, 난민화되는 삶』, 갈무리, 서울, 2020 Ginam, Kim, Refugee, a life is became like as Rfefugee’s life, Galmuri, Seoul Korea, 2020
[viii] 김진호, [예수 천국, 불신 지옥], 『권력과 교회』, 창비, 강남순〮박노자〮한홍구〮김웅교 대담, 서울. 2018, Jinho, Kim, Power and Church, CHANGBI, 2018
[xiii] 박정원, 『공동체 없는 공동체』, 알렙, 서울, 2020, Jungwon, Park, Community without community, ALEB, Seoul Korea, 2020
[xiv] Resigl, Martin and Wodak, Ruth, 『Discourse and Discrimination: Rhetorics of Racism and antisemitism』, Rutledge, London, 2001
[xv] Anderson, Benedict, 『Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism』, Translator is Youn Hyeong-sook(윤형숙 역), Nanam(나남), Seoul Korea, 2013