My American-Islamic Outreach that Didn’t Reach in South Korea

There is a nicely decorated indoor tree by a sunny window in my friend’s living room in Seoul. He is keeping it for me in his ample apartment as I figure out what to do with it. I made it as a gift months ago, but the intended recipients turned it down.

The tree is a result of my own need to make a peaceable gesture on behalf of my country. Even after U.S. courts struck down President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims from seven countries, I was still concerned by it. I couldn’t stop considering what it meant ideologically for rule of law, democracy, and human rights, both in the U.S. and abroad.

More pragmatically, I was confused by the ideology behind it. American businesses thrive off of underpaid and often overeducated Muslim immigrant labor. Why would a staunchly pro-corporate President want to keep such immigrants out? Muslims make a vital contribution to American universities, especially in the fields of science, math, engineering and technology. Why would my country turn away some of the best minds in the world, thus allowing those “threatening” countries to benefit from that intellectual capital instead of us? Foreign-born Muslims have nearly the lowest crime rates of any immigrants in the U.S. Why would a White House with an official “support our police” page want to keep out the very immigrants who are a boon to law enforcement? After a few weeks, the treatment of immigrants and Muslims under the new administration continued to stir my sense of injustice.

As an attempt to constructively channel my need for action, I started a small project to collect messages of support for a nearby mosque where I live in South Korea. I posted a call on social media for affirmative words of support for Muslims from non-Muslim Americans. I simply said that I was collecting kind messages that I would deliver to the mosque, as a sign of peace and friendship during a time of otherwise tense Islamic-American relations. I received about 20 messages, which I hung on colorful paper on the branches of a small indoor tree. I decorated it with some ribbon, and wrote a heartfelt letter about the positive role Muslims have played in my life. I was pleased with my “peace tree” and looked forward to dropping it off at the mosque.

A Muslim friend here encouraged me to call the mosque first, to introduce myself and explain the gesture. He thought the Imam, the head of the mosque, might want to have a ceremony of sorts, or announce the gift to worshippers. My friend was touched by the effort, and believed it merited more than just a quick drop off of the tree. After a week of calls back and forth, my friend finally talked to the Imam on the phone.

The Imam strongly refused the gift outright. He said it was political in nature, and such messages should be better directed at the U.S. government rather than a mosque. He fundamentally misunderstood the content of the messages, and had no interest in learning more.

I was initially surprised by his rebuff, but after thinking on it and discussing it with my friend, I came to better understand some of the dynamics at play. Muslims in Korea are a small group. Korea is not a country particularly open to foreign faces or unfamiliar religions. Some Muslims are in the country on temporary visas, and struggle to harmonize in their adopted home as is. Muslims in Korea are a relatively new phenomenon, only arriving in noticeable numbers circa 1995. They have not had decades to create a sense of independent identity as they have in other world cities with more diversity. The mosque has little reason to want to draw attention to itself.

The well-known Korean alliance with the U.S. remains strong, regardless of the President in office. Although the messages on the tree are apolitical, it is understandable that the mosque would not want to create even the passing thought that it allowed any sentiment critical of U.S. policy through its doors. After all, Korea is its host country. For the mosque leaders, words of support for Muslims in the wake of the travel ban may seem tantamount to criticism of U.S. foreign policy, in a country that relies heavily on an American trade and military relationship.

The mosque responded to my gesture defensively and suspiciously, and in hindsight, understandably so. They are trying to practice a religion villainized by the West in a country unaccustomed to diversity. Because of their Itaewon location within an immigrant neighborhood, they are a potpourri of sects from countries all over Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. That is an immense balancing act for the mosque leadership.

Mostly, however, I think the issue is that those who contributed to the peace tree messages are strangers. Americans have not always garnered the best reputation for their conduct abroad, and so the mosque leaders can’t know that most of those messages came from my globally-minded teaching colleagues with a wholehearted commitment to the quality education of young Koreans. They can’t know that these same colleagues spend their free time planning in-class debates on foreign aid to refugees. Moreover, I am a complete stranger. They don’t know that I have Muslim family members, that I have a graduate degree in human rights, that I have loved my time in Muslim communities across the world and that I loved living in my Muslim neighborhood in New York.

Importantly, the reason that they don’t know these things about us is because they didn’t want to talk to me at all.

However, I don’t see this refusal to engage as a sign that the Islamic community in Korea wants to close itself off. Rather, it results from an unfortunate confluence of forces. Muslims don’t feel secure in their role in Korea, or anywhere outside the Islamic world really. It is exceedingly difficult for them to get jobs or secure housing. They physically stand out in public spaces. They feel attacked by the U.S., a Korean ally. They are so few in number, about a quarter million, in a country of over 52 million people. It is not an easy path they forge. Ultimately, the failure of my gesture is no one’s fault. It simply shows how constrained we are within systems that incentivize maintaining the status quo.

I hope that I find someone who wants to accept my tree one day.