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Mosque Dispute Becomes Flash Point in South Korean Identity Politics

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DAEGU, South Korea — Inside the dimly lit house, young Muslim men knelt and prayed in silence. Outside, their Korean neighbors gathered with angry signs to protest “a den of terrorists” moving into their neighborhood.

In a densely populated but otherwise quiet district in Daegu, a city in southeastern South Korea, a highly emotional standoff is underway.

Roughly 150 Muslims, mostly students ​at the nearby Kyungpook National University, started building a mosque in a lot next door to their temporary house of worship about a year ago. When their Korean neighbors found out, they were furious.

The mosque would turn the neighborhood of Daehyeon-dong into “​an enclave of Muslims and a ​crime-infested ​slum,” the Korean neighbors wrote on signs and protest banners. It would bring more “noise” and a “food smell​” from an unfamiliar culture, driving out the Korean residents.

The Muslim students and their Korean supporters fought back, arguing that they had the right to live and pray in peace in Daegu, one of the most politically conservative cities in South Korea. “There is a difference between protest and harassment,” said Muaz Razaq, 25, a Ph.D. student in computer science who is from Pakistan. “What they were doing was harassment.”

The fault line between the two communities here has exposed an uncomfortable truth in South Korea. At a time when the country enjoys more global influence than ever — with consumers around the world eager to dance to its music, drive its cars and buy its smartphones — it is also grappling with a fierce wave of anti-immigrant fervor and Islamophobia. While it has successfully exported its culture abroad, it has been slow to welcome other cultures at home.

The mosque dispute has become a flash point, part of a larger phenomenon in which South Koreans have had to confront what it means to live in an increasingly diverse society. Muslims have often borne the brunt of racist misgivings, particularly 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 series of organized anti-immigrant protests. The government responded to fears that the asylum seekers were harboring terrorists by banning them from leaving the island.

“Their rules on the hijab alone are enough reason that they should never set foot in our country,” said Lee Hyung-oh, the leader of Refugee Out, a​ nationwide anti-immigration network that opposes the mosque in Daegu.

Many Koreans explain their attitude toward foreigners by citing history: their small nation has survived invasions and occupations for centuries, maintaining its territory, language and ethnic identity. Those who oppose the mosque and immigration more broadly have often warned that an influx of foreigners would threaten South Korea’s “pure blood” and “ethnic homogeneity.”

“We may look exclusionist, but it has made us what we are, consolidating us as a nation to survive war, colonial rule and financial crises and achieve economic development while speaking the same language, thinking the same thoughts,” Mr. Lee said. “I don’t think we could have done this with diversity,” he added. “We are not xenophobic. We just don’t want to mix with others.”

Some say the country does not have much of a choice.

South Korea’s rise as a cultural powerhouse has coincided with a demographic crisis. Years of low birthrates and rising incomes in urban areas have led to shortages of women who want to marry and live in rural towns. Farms and factories have found it difficult to fill low-wage jobs. Universities lack local students.

To help alleviate the challenges, South Korea opened its doors to workers and students from other nations. Some rural men began to marry foreign women, especially from Vietnam. Yet when the government introduced policies to support “multicultural families,” there was a backlash. Suddenly, words like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” became pejorative terms for many South Koreans.

And the antipathy has not been limited to Muslim students in Daegu, a city of more than two million people.

Last year, an anti-China uproar forced a local developer to cancel its plan to build a Chinese cultural center west of Seoul. In Ansan, south of Seoul, all but six of the 450 students in Wongok Elementary School are immigrants’ children because Korean parents have refused to send their children there. In 2020, a Ghanaian entertainer sparked a backlash when he criticized a blackface performance by high school students. He eventually apologized.

“Koreans have deep-rooted xenophobic beliefs that foreigners are inferior,” said Yi Sohoon, a professor of sociology at Kyungpook National University who supports the mosque. “But they value foreigners differently according to their origin. They treat Black people from the United States or Europe differently from Black people from Africa.”

Runaway housing prices, a lack of social mobility and a widening income gap have contributed to the tensions. In a recent Facebook post, Yoon Suk-yeol, a leading conservative candidate in the March 9 presidential election, vowed to stop immigrants from getting “a free ride” with national health care. Lee Jae-myung, his more left-leaning rival, accused Mr. Yoon of fanning “xenophobic right-wing populism.”

The number of foreign residents in South Korea grew to 1.7 million, or 3.3 percent of the total population, in 2020, from 1.4 million in 2017. The government has predicted that the number will grow to 2.3 million by 2040. The overall population fell for the first time on record in 2021, increasing the need for foreign workers and students.

“Human beings are naturally biased, but don’t let the bias lead you to depriving other people of their fundamental human rights,” said Ashraf Akintola, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering from Nigeria and one of the Muslim worshipers in Daegu. Mr. Akintola said he felt sad when a Korean protester followed him last year shouting, “Leave our country!” Back in Nigeria, he said, K-pop was so popular that his friends learned to speak Korean.

The Muslims students had prayed at an ordinary house in Daehyeon-dong for seven years. In late 2020, after tearing the house down, they began building a mosque, using a building next door as a temporary house of worship during construction. That’s when Korean residents and activists joined forces to make the neighborhood the center of an anti-immigrant campaign.

In January, the neighbors hung a large black-and-white banner across from the proposed mosque site: “Korean people come first!”

“We are not against their religion,” said Kim Jeong-suk, a 67-year-old Korean resident who opposes the mosque. “We just can’t have a new religious facility in our crowded neighborhood, whether it’s Islamic, Buddhist or Christian.” The neighborhood already has 15 Christian churches, including one roughly 30 yards from where the mosque would be.

Many of the offensive signs were removed after the government’s National Human Rights Commission intervened last October. Construction remains suspended as both sides take their case to court, but human rights lawyers say discrimination against immigrants can also be found in South Korean law.

“It’s one thing that Koreans want to be recognized globally, get rich and successful abroad,” said Hwang Pil-gyu, a human rights attorney who tracks abuses against immigrants. “It’s quite another whether they are willing to embrace foreigners.”

An anti-discrimination bill has stalled in Parliament for years amid opposition from a powerful Christian lobby. Under current policy, undocumented people are not afforded the same rights as those who are in South Korea legally, and foreigners detained under immigration laws are not entitled to habeas corpus.

Last year, disturbing closed-circuit TV footage from a detention center for undocumented immigrants showed a Moroccan man hogtied in solitary confinement. The Justice Ministry admitted to human rights abuses and promised reform.

Still, accepting Muslim refugees has become so unpopular that when the government gave asylum to 390 Afghans last year, it refused to call them refugees. Instead it called them “special contributors,” signaling that the country would only welcome those who contributed to national interests.

“Globalization has a positive connotation among South Koreans,” said Ms. Yi, the professor. “But they need to realize that it involves an exchange of not just money and goods, but culture, religion and people.” Ms. Yi was among the liberal politicians, professors and activists who staged rallies supporting the mosque.

Residents, however, appear to be united in their opposition. More than 175,000 people signed a petition addressed to Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, warning that “If we lose Daehyeon-dong, we will lose Daegu.”

“I had never seen people like them before, and I saw no women, only men, swarming in there,” said Park Jeong-suk, a 60-year-old resident who lives next door to the proposed mosque site.

Ms. Park’s neighbor, Namgung Myeon, 59, said he opposed an influx of foreigners as South Korea’s own population declined. “It will unsettle our national foundation,” he said, “enervating our national character and values.”

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