Pig heads, BBQs: Mosque backlash tests S Korea religious freedom
Plan to rebuild a small mosque for Daegu university students has come up against a powerful conservative Christian lobby.
Daegu, South Korea – When Muaz Razaq left Pakistan for the first time in 2019 to study for his computer science master’s degree in South Korea, he never expected to become the lightning rod of a bitter battle putting the country’s religious tolerance to the test.
“South Korea stands out as a leader in software engineering and Kyungpook National University was my first choice owing to the positive things I had heard from my seniors and the presence of a mosque nearby,” the 27-year-old, who is now studying for a doctorate, told Al Jazeera.
“Some locals were curious about my traditional attire and beard, which reminded them of Korea’s past aristocrats, but I never felt animosity or direct discrimination.”
All that changed when the university’s approximately 150 Muslims decided to renovate the mosque they established in 2014 near the school’s west gate.
The dispute over the plan has turned the construction site into a target of virulent Islamophobia.
Officially known as Dar-ul-Emaan Kyungpook and Islamic Centre, the mosque is located in the Buk district of Daegu, South Korea’s third-largest city and a conservative stronghold about 240km (149 miles) from the capital Seoul.
There are about a dozen mosques around Daegu, mainly in the suburbs, catering to migrant labour populations of practising Muslims.
Students raised the funds to demolish their old building next to the university, which was too cramped and lacked proper heating, and put up a new two-storey structure. To secure the necessary planning permission, they had to buy the house next door, which now serves as a temporary prayer hall.
Soon after the new beams were erected in early 2021, the Buk district office abruptly issued an administrative order halting construction, citing complaints from local residents.
The concerns were apparently related to the smell from the students’ cooking inside the mosque, noise and obstruction of traffic – things Razaq says had not previously been mentioned as problems.
“Until then, everything was very friendly.”
Soon, pamphlets were being distributed in the surrounding streets, claiming the area would become a “slum” and property values would plummet. Students were labelled as “terrorists” and the streets plastered with offensive banners. Rallies were held and loud music played outside the temporary prayer room.
The country’s human rights watchdog recommended that construction be resumed. The Supreme Court, in 2022, ruled that the administrative order to stop construction was illegal. But still, the hate continued to grow.
Pork barbecue parties have been held in front of the construction site and pig heads left outside.
“It’s about protecting our lives,” Kim Jeong-ae, who leads one of the resident opposition groups against the mosque, told Al Jazeera at a press conference outside the Buk district office – where the opposition groups accused officials of siding with the students.
Concerned about a break-in, rows of civil servants blocked the district office’s entrance. Police were also on standby.
The Muslim students are “free to go anywhere else, just not there”, she added, referring to the mosque’s location in a narrow alley.
‘Expressions of hate’
According to Yi Sohoon, a professor of sociology at Kyungpook National University and president of the Taskforce for the Peaceful Construction of the Islamic Mosque, concerns about smells and noise are just excuses to stop the project.
“I think it’s impossible to segregate so-called genuine concerns from complaints motivated by feelings of xenophobia and Islamophobia,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s no reason for us to think that [legitimate] concerns could not be adequately addressed.”
Students have already promised to install an extractor chimney and soundproof walls and windows. There were never plans for an external loudspeaker for the Islamic call to prayer, or “adhan”.
When Al Jazeera visited Daegu early this month, three pig heads and trotters were rotting inside a fridge placed in front of the construction site. There was also a plastic pig’s head positioned against a banner proclaiming: “People first! Against the construction of the mosque!”
The human rights commission recently condemned such actions as “typical expressions of hate” against a minority group based on race and religion, noting they were intended to “demean Islamic culture and incite hostility towards Muslims”.
Razaq, who now represents the university’s Muslim students, blames certain religious groups for the attacks on his community and says they are coercing locals to turn against them.
South Korean media appeared reluctant to discuss that aspect of the dispute, he told Al Jazeera.
“By omitting this information, the public perceives the situation as a simple dispute between neighbours and Muslim students when, in fact, these religious groups have provided Islamophobic information and are mobilising resources to interrupt the peaceful resolution of this issue,” he said. “They have been involved since the beginning.”
Enter the Christian lobby group: Protestants account for about 20 percent of South Korea’s population, or 10 million people. Largely made up of conservative evangelical groups often associated with far-right politics, they have significant sway in politics and society.
By comparison, there are said to be fewer than 200,000 Muslims in South Korea, most of whom are foreign nationals.
Farrah Sheikh, an assistant professor at Keimyung University who specialises in Islam in South Korea, told Al Jazeera that Islamophobia could be attributed to factors including the circulation of fake and distorted news from foreign sources.
Another factor, she said, was the “negative perceptions shaped by the well-organised and well-funded extreme Christian right who are fearful of a so-called ‘Islamic invasion’ through the introduction of facilities that Muslims need, such as halal food or prayer spaces, or accepting Muslim refugees”.
Recent studies have found that this Christian right recently launched a “culture war” with a particular focus on opposing Islam and the LGBTQ community. The group is the primary reason why South Korea has been unable to pass an anti-discrimination law for more than 10 years.
A poster held by an anti-mosque protester outside the Buk district office lumped the two together, calling for the blocking of “queerslam terrorism”, a combination of the words “queer” and “Islam”. The suffix “-slam” also comes from Korean internet slang (derived from the word “Islam”), meaning to show irrational behaviour or blind following.
Seo Chang-ho, a Daegu-based human rights activist, said the administrative office’s response had only intensified the discrimination against Muslim students.
“The Buk district’s decision to block the construction was based on complaints rather than looking into facts and I think this decision heavily affected residents,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think this issue would have become so big had it done its administrative work based on laws and principles rather than encouraging hatred.”
The Buk district office told Al Jazeera that it upholds the “protection of freedom and rights prescribed by the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Korea” and “respects diversity to ensure that South Korea maintains and protects the characteristics of a multicultural society”.
Professor Yi said that the Islamophobia on display in Daegu revealed double standards.
“It contradicts the very active drive for globalisation that South Korea as a country has been pursuing over the last few decades […] and it’s only natural that this results in an inflow of migration to South Korea,” she said, pointing out that respect for diversity and human rights for migrants had failed to keep up with the country’s globalisation drive.
Concerns have been raised that the Daegu mosque issue could escalate into a diplomatic incident. The United Kingdom’s ambassador in Seoul recently paid a symbolic visit to the site, while other embassies, including those of the Muslim world, are also known to be keeping a close eye on the situation.
According to Kim Jeong-ae, the protester, opposition to the mosque has nothing to do with religion. She claims this is a narrative manufactured by Muslim students and civic groups advocating for the anti-discrimination law.
But the evidence suggests otherwise.
Evangelical groups, including the Seoul-based National Sovereign Action, have been opposed to the mosque reconstruction almost since the beginning.
The group is associated with the Christian right and its dedicated anti-mosque task force shares the same address as an evangelical church in Daegu.
A big protest scheduled for May 20 is being organised by National Sovereign Action and more than 70 other conservative Christian groups, many of which have no connection to the dozen households surrounding the mosque, or, indeed, Daegu.
Contrary to claims that religious facilities were not welcome in a residential area, there are multiple churches in the mosque’s vicinity, one of them just 30 metres (98 feet) away.
Conservative pastors, well known for their national campaigns against the passing of the anti-discrimination law, double as leaders of anti-mosque fronts claiming to represent residents’ interests.
Some of these pastors have also publicly accused Razaq of being associated with Islamic hardline groups and Muslim students’ representative has found himself investigated by authorities on multiple occasions.
“I have nothing to hide and they can search me inside out. All accusations against me have proven to be unfounded,” he said, adding that he has filed defamation charges against one person who made such claims.
Pastor Joseph Joo of National Sovereign Action told Al Jazeera that the group’s opposition was not motivated by hate but a desire to resist “cultural imperialism”. He said the mosque’s construction in a residential area “without the consent of residents” also violated the cultural identity of the neighbourhood and country as a whole.
“Koreans are angry about this problem […] and Christians, who are members of this country, are also opposed to it,” he said.
After the press conference in front of the Buk district office, the protesters sat on the floor and began barbecuing pork belly, to make themselves samgyeopsal – a popular dish of meat wrapped in lettuce.
Joo defended such actions, saying it was the basic right of residents to assert their cultural identity.
The Buk district said it hopes to find a solution as soon as possible.
“We are actively consulting with all policy-related parties as well as stakeholders to solve the problem, maintaining continuous efforts to come up with alternatives that can be agreed upon by all, including both Korean and foreign nationals,” an official who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
While the recent resumption of construction was again met with fierce resistance and the deployment of police, the mosque is expected to be completed by the summer.
Razaq remains resolute despite the opposition and refuses to give in to the protesters’ intimidation.
“I have nothing to lose,” he said, adding that he is not fighting just for himself but for future generations of Muslim students who will come to Daegu and South Korea.
“We are willing to listen and address valid concerns but we will never compromise on issues rooted in Islamophobia.”