▲ At left, a file photo of Seoul Central Mosque. At right, Prof. Kim Dae Yong. Photos by Alpha Newberry
Efforts to attract foreign investment and to fulfill obligations from Jeju’s 2002 self-declared role as a “Free International City” has set in motion various endeavors to serve the cultural needs of foreign people. One such need—though typically less talked about than foreign foods, languages, daily customs and fashions, but which is arguably more fundamental to a culture—is religious expression.
Shamanism and Buddhism, though native to Jeju, are currently contending alongside a booming Christian population. In addition to the 750 Muslims currently living on Jeju from Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others, there are an estimated 60,000 Muslim visitors coming to Jeju each year, says Professor Kim Dae Yong, the Jeju-born director of the Korea Muslim Federation.
Prof. Kim is also vice president of RISEAP (Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of South-East Asia & the Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and secretary general of the Korea & Qatar Friendship Association.
The cultural impact of those Muslims living on Jeju has been more difficult to see, particularly when compared to more obvious Western influences such as language schools, film, music and food. The reason for this is, by and large, economic.
“Often they [Muslims living and working on Jeju] are working temporary, 3-D jobs,” Prof. Kim said, explaining that “3-D” means dirty, dangerous and difficult. “Most of them are from Indonesia, working as fishermen. I guess [there are] about 450 of them.”
“About 40 Muslim students are studying at Jeju National University,” he added.
Other Muslims, he says, work simple factory jobs for wages lower than Koreans would expect.
“The Islamic community [of Jeju] is not tight. We cannot pray together because workers are unable to get time off. They cannot have Fridays off, for example, which is a day to worship publicly in mosques,” said Prof. Kim, referring to the common practice in Islamic nations.
With little money and even less time on the hands of Muslims living in Jeju, not a greal deal of demand has been heard for needs such as Islamic cuisine, mosques, and other recognisable cultural items.
Moreover, with language barriers and the possible misuse of power over lower-wage foreign employees, many potential problems arise for a Muslim in making his or her religious needs known and accepted. One of Prof. Kim’s purposes on Jeju, one for which he volunteers his time, is helping fellow Muslims in cases where troubles like this arise.
He also intervenes on more fundamental problems, such as payment issues.
Other groups of Muslims on Jeju have a wider array of options. For instance, though there are no mosques on Jeju, Prof. Kim has set up a “temporary mosque” in his Nohyung-dong office space in Shin Jeju, where those with time to visit are welcome.
Syed Shanu, another example of a Muslim resident, is an assistant professor at Halla College who is originally from India and has been living in Jeju for roughly a year. He reports meeting Muslim friends with some frequency: “We meet sometimes and have prayers. In festival times like EID (Ramadan), we usually meet and have prayer together.”
Mona Hassanien, currently living in Jeju and working as an English teacher, is also of the Muslim faith although she practices a more inwardly focused form of the religion called Sufism. Some of her Islamic practices include fasting during the month of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic calender), paying zakat (charity) to people, organizations or projects benefiting others, which is done secretly to ensure no feelings of indebtedness for others, and good will for herself.
Although she does not have an Islamic community around her, she feels relatively unlimited by life on Jeju, except that she has “missed the ritual of breaking fast with others during Ramadan or hearing the call to prayer otherwise known as the adan [sometimes spelt Adhan].”
A Muslim living in Jeju may also encounter challenges obtaining Halal food. Halal food is, as Prof. Kim explains, food that is in accord with Islamic law.
“There are many aspects to consider for this,” he said. “Take for example pork. It cannot be consumed at all. Other meats must come from animals [that] have been properly killed quickly with a very sharp blade at the neck. This is to prevent a slow painful death.”
There are many other aspects to consider in the preparation of Halal food, he added. However in Jeju, where pork from the black pig is famous, finding Halal food can be challenging though not impossible.
“We eat only Halal food. No Halal food is available in Jeju. We order from the mainland,” said Syed Shanu. Prof. Kim, who also tries to adhere to Islamic laws in his food consumption, says that there is some Halal food on the island, but that it is rare and may be found only in some of the big-name hotels. In addition, an authentic Indian-style restaurant called Bagdad, located in the City Hall area, has been serving Halal certified food since 2006, a year after the restaurant opened.
“The lamb and vegetarian dishes are always halal,” said Hyun Ju Ryeong, Bagdad’s owner, “but the customer must make reservations at least 1 day early for Halal chicken because we usually use local chicken [unless otherwise instructed].” Hyun says that her meat must be ordered from the mainland.
The mainland, says Prof. Kim, is home to about 150,000 Muslims at this time. The bulk of whatever influence Islam has had on Jeju began primarily “during the 1970s and 1980s [when] there were many Korean companies working in the Middle East. Many people went to Saudi Arabia or other Islamic countries.”
Asked if he has met any other Koreans who have chosen an Islamic lifestyle, he replies that he’s met one or two.
Korea still has some deep misconceptions about what such a lifestyle is, he affirms. Some conceive that “a Muslim has the Quran in one hand and a sword in the other. It is not true! Or that they have four wives. No! I have only one wife!” he said.
One reason for such misconceptions, according to Prof. Kim is that, “Korea is a peninsula—we are isolated. So modern educational systems were established by Christian missionaries. They built many educational institutes—many high schools and even universities. At the time, there were no Muslim missionaries.”
“We [Koreans] like to learn from Western-style education. We learn world history from the point of view of Christianity. So, we have some misconceptions.”
One can be certain that the more Jeju branches out into the international scene, the more Islam it will find. To accommodate the religion and its practices sensitively is a matter of choice and attitude, but there is reason to believe that a proper attitude is in place, at least partially. Hassanien states that, regarding her spiritual leanings, those she has met on Jeju have “been more inquisitive and curious than judgmental.”
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