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Miracle of the Hangang River: A Third Eye View

Korea, the "Land of the Morning Calm" is no longer calm and quiet in the morning. If your flight arrives at the Incheon International Airport at late night or before dawn, you will see the streets of Seoul filled with taxi cabs, buses, private cars, and limousines. This busy beginning of the day indicates the transformation of Korea from an agricultural-oriented Confucian society to a highly industrialized and business-oriented society that competes with other industrialized nations of the world.
I arrived in Korea as a Korea Foundation Fellow in 2006 to conduct research on South Korea's economic and technological assistance policy toward developing countries, with special emphasis on Bangladesh. My affiliate institution was the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) of Sogang University, which is an outstanding university in Korea, ranking only after the Seoul National and Yonsei universities.
One of my observations of Korea has been that Koreans are highly work-driven, which, in my opinion, was an important reason for the rapid material transformation of the country. Every Korean, ranging from university professors and high-ranking bureaucrats down to the common factory workers, perform their jobs with utmost sincerity, punctuality, and methodology. In recent years, thousands of Korean students, teachers, technologists, linguists, religious clergy, scientists, and bureaucrats have been going abroad in pursuit of new knowledge, which is enriching the Korean nation at large and changing their perspective on the global community, of which they are a part. Koreans also possess a keen sense of competition with other nations in terms of occupying a prestigious position, from all considerations, among the world of nations.
With the expansion of trade and commerce abroad, foreigners are coming to Korea in increasing numbers. Foreign businessmen, migrant workers, industrial trainees, researchers, academicians, cultural groups, and members of religious missions are everywhere in Seoul and in other cities, in pursuit of their own endeavors. As such, Korean cities have become cosmopolitan in character, like Western cities. All sorts of Asian foods, especially the "Halal" foods of Muslims, are available at special shops. Western fast foods, such as KFC, Burger King, Dunkin'Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and Domino's can be found in every nook and corner of important Korean cities.
Foreigners getting married to Koreans are increasing in numbers and their children are creating a new generation of Koreans. Thus, diverse elements are being added to the homogenous monolithic culture of Koreans, while the accommodation of all these diversified elements is giving birth to a mixed culture.
The rapid addition of global influences in a country as homogenous and monolithic as Korea could have brought about internal conflict and turmoil, especially in terms of religion and thought. From this perspective, the religious tolerance extended toward the Islamic culture in Korea, a country that has experienced such dramatic modernization, is another "Miracle of the Hangang River." Korea appears to me a country of perfect religious freedom and communal harmony. Everyone is free to practice his or her religion without any external restrictions.
Every Friday, hundreds of Muslims, both Koreans and from different Muslim countries congregate to pray at the Itaewon Central Mosque and Islamic Center, where the Office of the Korea Muslim Federation is also located. This huge mosque was built with the latest designs of Islamic architecture by the Korean government in the 1970s.
Statistics show that at present there are 40,000 indigenous Muslims in Korea. It was only during World War II that Koreans first came to know about Islam through the religious practices of Turkish soldiers, who came to this land as part of the Allied military forces. Also, during the Middle East construction boom in the 1970s, thousands of Koreans went to work for the Korean jaebol business groups in different countries of West Asia and North Africa, and during their stay many Korean citizens accepted Islam as their religion.

The Korean Muslim Federation, a government-approved autonomous organization, deals with the community affairs, religious ceremonies of Muslims, and functions related to the charity and propagation of Islam in Korea. In this, a combination of Islamic and Korean values can be seen. Korean Muslims usually come to the mosque along with their family members. Muslims in Korea share many of the aspects of Korea's traditional values, which are identical to Islamic practices. This may be one of the reasons why the Muslim religion was accepted so harmoniously into Korean society. For example, respect and regard for parents and other elderly persons, social coherence and harmony, religious tolerance of people belonging to other religions, respect for the authority of leaders, close family relationships, and care for the destitute and poor are values shared by both Koreans and Muslims.
For Muslims from overseas, there are several mosques and prayer rooms established mainly through the private initiatives of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrant workers, which are located in Busan, Anyang, Gwangju, Daegu, Dongducheon, Dongam, Jeonju, Ansan, Peongtaek, Paju, Baran, Macheon-Geoyeo, Jeju, and Sihwa. The Korea Muslim Federation supervises the activities of these mosques and centers. Among them, the Anyang Rabita Islamic Center and Mosque was the first Islamic institution outside of Seoul, which was built at the initiative of Bangladeshi Muslims. The Center extends charitable activities, medical support, and a teaching of the Arabic language program to those in need of such services. Even the Mosque committee participates in community development activities and cooperates with the local administration in areas of mutual interest.
In short, Korea maintains an ideal example for religious tolerance and communal harmony. Here, religion has been separated from the state, and religious institutions enjoy freedom in conducting their business, unless their activities go against Korea's national interests or threaten internal peace. There is no place for extremism in Korea, in any form.
The only problem that Muslims in Korea have encountered is a difficulty for them to allot time for their weekly congregational prayer on Friday, at the mosque. It would be a good thing if the Korean government could introduce a law to allow two hours of prayer-leave for Muslim workers and officials in Korea on Fridays, between 12 noon and 2:00 p.m. This would add further evidence of the Korean government's practice of religious tolerance and freedom.

Koreans are prone to nationalistic thinking, as they love their country very much.
Many Korean poets and writers have written eulogies and praised the natural beauty of their country. They prefer to use indigenous products. All Korean male citizens are bound by law to enlist for military training so that they can defend their country during any emergency. However, despite such nationalistic tendencies, Koreans also exhibit wonderful tolerance and openness toward those from different backgrounds and religions.
The novel virtue of the Koreans, in their tolerance and openness, can also be seen in their attitude toward overseas development assistance. When Korea extends development assistance to developing countries in Asia or Africa, it does not impose any inherent imperialistic intentions toward the recipient country, as is a common practice with Western donors. In other words, Korea believes in friendly cooperation and business partnership, and in this sense, it is a true friend for the developing countries.

Throughout my short period of stay here, I have developed a special liking for many aspects of Korean life. The whole country is a house of unparalleled peace. Thus, I intend to proclaim: "Oh, Korea, this great nation of great people, keep going forward and sustain yourself, both for your people and the deprived people of the world!"

A.F.M. Shamsur Rahman, Ph.D.
Korea Foundation Fellow Professor Department of History, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh