The Korea Herald


Muaz Razaq on being Muslim in South Korea

By Kim Soo-young, Tammy Park

Published : Oct. 18, 2023 - 20:30

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Muaz Razaq, a representative of the Muslim community at Kyungpook National University, finds himself at the epicenter of a struggle that underscores the necessity for greater understanding and inclusivity in a city traditionally perceived as "unwelcoming" to Muslims.

Arriving in South Korea with the aspiration of pursuing a doctorate in computer science, Razaq swiftly encountered the challenges associated with practicing Islam in a predominantly non-Muslim country. Initially, Razaq found solace in the presence of a Muslim community at KNU.

"When I reached Daegu, I was able to release the tension and worries of coming to a non-Muslim country because my friends helped me with everything, from renting a room to arranging the initial stuff (I needed)," he recalled.

However, he soon realized that his faith would require him to navigate a unique set of challenges, which were highlighted when he took on the role of a media representative for the Daegu mosque issue. The issue began more than three years ago when a group of students began the project of building a mosque. The project was met with resistance from locals, with some resorting to barbecuing pork in protest outside the construction site, and even online attacks.

The mosque's construction site in Daehyun-dong, Daegu (Muaz Razaq) The mosque's construction site in Daehyun-dong, Daegu (Muaz Razaq)

Despite enduring various forms of discrimination, Razaq's unwavering determination has allowed him to overcome obstacles in his path.

"Being on the frontline of the battle, I was fully aware of the challenge I was to confront. Furthermore, I don’t think the misconceptions and discrimination are a major problem in Korea, unless you encounter some bad people, though I cannot say that Korea is not Islamophobic-free," he stated.

As the first Muslim student in his lab, Razaq also found it important to set proper examples and explain the depth of his religious beliefs to his professors. Essential religious practices, such as observing Eid and Ramadan, necessitated understanding from professors and colleagues. Through respectful dialogue and understanding, his professors accommodated his religious commitments, setting a precedent for Muslim students from various countries. To Razaq, this went to show how small efforts to be vocal and expressive can create significant and long-lasting impacts.

“When other Muslim students came, they didn't have to explain it because the trend was already set by me in that lab. So that's why you should express your needs to your professors,” he said. “Be expressive. And also, it (will) be helpful for other Muslims because sometimes some other students are not that expressive.”

Photos of Razaq, taken in Daegu (Source: Muaz Razaq) Photos of Razaq, taken in Daegu (Source: Muaz Razaq)

Nevertheless, Razaq's journey is far from over. He confronts challenges that may seem mundane to some but hold great significance for his faith. For instance, the act of washing his feet before prayer, a fundamental religious practice, is sometimes met with misunderstanding in public restrooms.

"While doing ablution before praying, we have to wash our feet. But there’s no place to wash our feet in Korean universities. So we have to wash our feet in the sink, but it is not accepted in Korean culture. Some of my Muslim friends were told not to wash their feet in the sink. But we do not have any other options," he explained.

Additionally, he pointed out that while Korean food is gaining popularity in Islamic countries, many Muslims students are faced with the challenge of not being able to enjoy Korean food as much as they did back home because, in Korea, the ingredients might not be halal or may have been contaminated by non-halal ingredients. He also highlighted this culinary disparity and the need for greater accessibility to halal options outside of Seoul, where Razaq currently resides.

As of May this year, there are approximately 150 Muslim international students enrolled at KNU. Over the past decade, KNU has actively attracted international students, leading to an increase in its Muslim population. Recognizing these efforts, the university was selected in 2014 by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice, receiving a Attracting and Managing Foreign International Students certificate.

Local universities in South Korea, like KNU, have been actively trying to attract students from Southeast Asia and Central Asia as a part of their survival strategies. As the Ministry of Education announced its goal of attracting 300,000 foreign international students by 2027 at the World Relations Ministers' Conference in August this year, it is expected that the number of Muslim students on university campuses will continue to rise.

For more insights into the life of Muslim students, the struggles of living in Korea and more, watch the full interview of Muaz Razaq on The Korea Herald's YouTube channel.

To learn more about the mosque issue, read our previous interview with Razaq here: