Mosque Dispute Becomes Flash Point in South Korean Identity Politics

Mosque Dispute Turns into Flash Level in South Korean Id Politics

DAEGU, South Korea — Contained in the dimly lit home, younger Muslim males knelt and prayed in silence. Exterior, their Korean neighbors gathered with offended indicators to protest “a den of terrorists” shifting into their neighborhood.

In a densely populated however in any other case quiet district in Daegu, a metropolis in southeastern South Korea, a extremely emotional standoff is underway.

Roughly 150 Muslims, largely college students ​on the close by Kyungpook Nationwide College, began constructing a mosque in loads subsequent door to their short-term home of worship a couple of yr in the past. When their Korean neighbors came upon, they had been livid.

The mosque would flip the neighborhood of Daehyeon-dong into “​an enclave of Muslims and a ​crime-infested ​slum,” the Korean neighbors wrote on indicators and protest banners. It will deliver extra “noise” and a “meals odor​” from an unfamiliar tradition, driving out the Korean residents.

The Muslim college students and their Korean supporters fought again, arguing that they’d the fitting to reside and pray in peace in Daegu, one of the vital politically conservative cities in South Korea. “There’s a distinction between protest and harassment,” stated Muaz Razaq, 25, a Ph.D. pupil in pc science who’s from Pakistan. “What they had been doing was harassment.”

The fault line between the 2 communities right here has uncovered an uncomfortable reality in South Korea. At a time when the nation enjoys extra world affect than ever — with customers around the globe keen to bounce to its music, drive its vehicles and purchase its smartphones — it’s also grappling with a fierce wave of anti-immigrant fervor and Islamophobia. Whereas it has efficiently exported its tradition overseas, it has been gradual to welcome different cultures at house.

The mosque dispute has turn out to be a flash level, half of a bigger phenomenon by which South Koreans have needed to confront what it means to reside in an more and more numerous society. Muslims have usually borne the brunt of racist misgivings, notably after the Taliban executed two South Korean missionaries in 2007.

The arrival of 500 Yemeni asylum seekers on the island of Jeju in 2018 triggered South Korea’s first collection of organized anti-immigrant protests. The federal government responded to fears that the asylum seekers had been harboring terrorists by banning them from leaving the island.

“Their guidelines on the hijab alone are sufficient purpose that they need to by no means set foot in our nation,” stated Lee Hyung-oh, the chief of Refugee Out, a​ nationwide anti-immigration community that opposes the mosque in Daegu.

Many Koreans clarify their angle towards foreigners by citing history: their small nation has survived invasions and occupations for hundreds of years, sustaining its territory, language and ethnic identification. Those that oppose the mosque and immigration extra broadly have usually warned that an influx of foreigners would threaten South Korea’s “pure blood” and “ethnic homogeneity.”

“We might look exclusionist, however it has made us what we’re, consolidating us as a nation to outlive warfare, colonial rule and monetary crises and obtain financial improvement whereas talking the identical language, considering the identical ideas,” Mr. Lee stated. “I don’t assume we may have completed this with range,” he added. “We’re not xenophobic. We simply don’t wish to combine with others.”

Some say the nation doesn’t have a lot of a alternative.

South Korea’s rise as a cultural powerhouse has coincided with a demographic crisis. Years of low birthrates and rising incomes in city areas have led to shortages of girls who wish to marry and reside in rural cities. Farms and factories have discovered it troublesome to fill low-wage jobs. Universities lack native college students.

To assist alleviate the challenges, South Korea opened its doorways to staff and college students from different nations. Some rural males started to marry overseas girls, especially from Vietnam. But when the federal government launched insurance policies to assist “multicultural households,” there was a backlash. Abruptly, phrases like “multiculturalism” and “range” turned pejorative phrases for a lot of South Koreans.

And the antipathy has not been restricted to Muslim college students in Daegu, a metropolis of greater than two million individuals.

Final yr, an anti-China uproar pressured an area developer to cancel its plan to construct a Chinese language cultural middle west of Seoul. In Ansan, south of Seoul, all but six of the 450 college students in Wongok Elementary College are immigrants’ youngsters as a result of Korean dad and mom have refused to ship their youngsters there. In 2020, a Ghanaian entertainer sparked a backlash when he criticized a blackface efficiency by highschool college students. He ultimately apologized.

“Koreans have deep-rooted xenophobic beliefs that foreigners are inferior,” stated Yi Sohoon, a professor of sociology at Kyungpook Nationwide College who helps the mosque. “However they worth foreigners otherwise in keeping with their origin. They deal with Black individuals from the USA or Europe otherwise from Black individuals from Africa.”

Runaway housing prices, an absence of social mobility and a widening income hole have contributed to the tensions. In a latest Fb publish, Yoon Suk-yeol, a number one conservative candidate within the March 9 presidential election, vowed to cease immigrants from getting “a free trip” with nationwide well being care. Lee Jae-myung, his extra left-leaning rival, accused Mr. Yoon of fanning “xenophobic right-wing populism.”

The variety of overseas residents in South Korea grew to 1.7 million, or 3.3 p.c of the entire inhabitants, in 2020, from 1.4 million in 2017. The federal government has predicted that the quantity will develop to 2.3 million by 2040. The general inhabitants fell for the primary time on file in 2021, rising the necessity for overseas staff and college students.

“Human beings are naturally biased, however don’t let the bias lead you to depriving different individuals of their basic human rights,” stated Ashraf Akintola, a Ph.D. pupil in biomedical engineering from Nigeria and one of many Muslim worshipers in Daegu. Mr. Akintola stated he felt unhappy when a Korean protester adopted him final yr shouting, “Go away our nation!” Again in Nigeria, he stated, Ok-pop was so well-liked that his buddies realized to talk Korean.

The Muslims college students had prayed at an abnormal home in Daehyeon-dong for seven years. In late 2020, after tearing the home down, they started constructing a mosque, utilizing a constructing subsequent door as a short lived home of worship throughout development. That’s when Korean residents and activists joined forces to make the neighborhood the middle of an anti-immigrant marketing campaign.

In January, the neighbors hung a big black-and-white banner throughout from the proposed mosque website: “Korean individuals come first!”

“We’re not towards their faith,” stated Kim Jeong-suk, a 67-year-old Korean resident who opposes the mosque. “We simply can’t have a brand new spiritual facility in our crowded neighborhood, whether or not it’s Islamic, Buddhist or Christian.” The neighborhood already has 15 Christian church buildings, together with one roughly 30 yards from the place the mosque could be.

Most of the offensive indicators had been eliminated after the federal government’s Nationwide Human Rights Fee intervened final October. Development stays suspended as each side take their case to courtroom, however human rights attorneys say discrimination towards immigrants may also be present in South Korean legislation.

“It’s one factor that Koreans wish to be acknowledged globally, get wealthy and profitable overseas,” stated Hwang Pil-gyu, a human rights lawyer who tracks abuses towards immigrants. “It’s fairly one other whether or not they’re keen to embrace foreigners.”

An anti-discrimination invoice has stalled in Parliament for years amid opposition from a strong Christian foyer. Underneath present coverage, undocumented individuals are not afforded the identical rights as those that are in South Korea legally, and foreigners detained underneath immigration legal guidelines usually are not entitled to habeas corpus.

Final yr, disturbing closed-circuit TV footage from a detention middle for undocumented immigrants confirmed a Moroccan man hogtied in solitary confinement. The Justice Ministry admitted to human rights abuses and promised reform.

Nonetheless, accepting Muslim refugees has turn out to be so unpopular that when the federal government gave asylum to 390 Afghans final yr, it refused to name them refugees. As an alternative it known as them “particular contributors,” signaling that the nation would solely welcome those that contributed to nationwide pursuits.

“Globalization has a constructive connotation amongst South Koreans,” stated Ms. Yi, the professor. “However they should notice that it includes an change of not simply cash and items, however tradition, faith and other people.” Ms. Yi was among the many liberal politicians, professors and activists who staged rallies supporting the mosque.

Residents, nevertheless, look like united of their opposition. Greater than 175,000 individuals signed a petition addressed to Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, warning that “If we lose Daehyeon-dong, we’ll lose Daegu.”

“I had by no means seen individuals like them earlier than, and I noticed no girls, solely males, swarming in there,” stated Park Jeong-suk, a 60-year-old resident who lives subsequent door to the proposed mosque website.

Ms. Park’s neighbor, Namgung Myeon, 59, stated he opposed an inflow of foreigners as South Korea’s personal inhabitants declined. “It should unsettle our nationwide basis,” he stated, “enervating our nationwide character and values.”

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