OPINION: Taiwan Welcomes Islam with Open Arms

OPINION: Taiwan Welcomes Islam with Open Arms
Credit: Jules Quartly
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Taiwan's religious tolerance, especially towards Islam is, sadly, exceptional.

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Last year in Kaohsiung I was invited to visit the city’s mosque, watched as the mostly migrant workers performed their afternoon prayers and was introduced to the imam. Husein Abu-yasin is an erudite, softly spoken gentleman who smiles a lot and talks about creating understanding and friendship.

It was all business, peace and love on the occasion of the inaugural International Halal Expo, which promotes food and drink permissible according to Islamic law. The event will take place once again this month in Taiwan’s second city, from Oct. 25-28.

Taiwan has rolled out the welcome mat to Muslims and it’s an approach that is winning hearts and minds. The money is rolling in and the Muslim population is steadily growing – but unlike many countries, this is not perceived as an existential threat.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
Imam of Kaohsiung Mosque and Executive Director of the Chinese Muslim Association Husein Abu-yasin on the steps of Kaohsiung Mosque.

Muslim migrant workers are building the economy, caring for a rapidly graying population and enriching the nation’s cultural tapestry through the introduction of Muslim festivities. The president is courting Muslim countries as part of a major diplomatic initiative; and Muslim tourists are positively encouraged to visit, with the promise of halal-approved restaurants and Islamic prayer rooms in hotels.

This rosy picture of dialogue and religious harmony is at odds with half the rest of the world, which seems to be permanently at war with the world’s fastest growing religion.

In the United States, formerly famous for welcoming the tired and poor “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the country’s president has instituted a “Muslim ban.” In the United Kingdom, leading politicians pour scorn on women who wear burqas by saying it makes them look like “bank robbers.” Even famously liberal Scandinavian countries like Denmark have implemented “burqa bans.”

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Credit: Jules Quartly
Then Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (L), at Kaohsiung’s International Halal Expo last year.

Hindu nationalist groups are responsible for an uptick in hate crimes against the Muslim minority in India. China jails Uyghurs by the million and claims this is “re-education.” The government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of genocide against the Rohynga, in Myanmar.

Islamophobia is rife, so much so that Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state funded broadcaster, dedicates an entire section of its English service’s online website to “Islamophobia News,” also referred to as Islamophobia Inc in the U.S. At the time of writing, stories detail how 500 Yemenis are applying for refugee status on South Korea’s Jeju Island; a car rams people outside a London mosque; Muslim employees at Halliburton are called terrorists and “How ACT for America encourages citizens to spy on Muslims.”

The latest Pew Research Center report on government restrictions and religion looks at data from 2016 and shows a global uptick in nationalism and religious hate. Of 198 countries or self-governing territories examined in the report, 83 countries had high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion, while social hostility toward certain religious groups was noted in 27 percent of countries.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
Worshipers perform midday prayers at Kaohsiung Mosque.

Muslims are overwhelmingly the most targeted religious group around the world, according to Pew data. Yet many of the abovementioned nations rate themselves highly in terms of tolerance, respect for free speech and religious freedom. So much so, they often tell the rest of the world how to behave.

Taiwan’s actions speak for themselves. Article 13 of the Constitution grants freedom of religious belief. In practice, this means an estimated 82 percent of the population are affiliated to some religious organization or another. Significantly, most of these believers are non-dogmatic and decidedly not monotheistic. Most believe in a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, making it a syncretic religion, embracing both tradition and new ideas.

There are Buddhist organizations like Tzu Chi that are powerful charitable and political entities, private temples for apartment complexes and even shrines to the “rabbit god” for homosexuals. Temples are packed to the rafters during Chinese New Year and religious festivals are celebrated all year long.

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Credit: AP / TNG
Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and then presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (C) prays at a temple during a campaign stop in Beigang on Jan. 11, 2016.

Despite all this religious fervor, “There are no reports of tensions between the religions, whether at an organizational level or between the faith communities themselves,” according to the 2016 Religious Freedom Report.

Rather than seeing Muslims as outliers or fearing their influence, there is a top-down, positively direct engagement policy. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has made ties with Muslim nations like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan a cornerstone of the New Southbound Policy, which was launched in 2016 to pivot away from reliance on China.

Last year, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) made a pilgrimage to Taipei Main Station to greet Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. In April this year the mayor agreed plans to build a third mosque in Taipei, which will accommodate 50,000 people.

At the street level, Taiwan’s people are famously friendly and this attitude seems to inspire amity. There’s no antipathy to anyone based on their religious affiliation. Locals are more likely, for example, to be admiring or inquisitive about women wearing a burqa. Certainly, there is no question of burqas being removed, or persecuting someone for their choice of headwear.

Taiwan’s permanent Muslim population represents just 0.3 percent of the population, or about 60,000 people, according to government figures. Some families have lived here since the 1600s, though most came over from China with Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the Kuomintang, in 1949. Since the 1980s, persecuted Muslims from Myanmar and Thailand have also found sanctuary here.

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Credit: AP / TPG
Thousands of migrants workers marched on April 30, 2017 in Taipei City urging the Taiwan government to take up the role of a moderator between migrant workers and employers.

In addition, there are more than 300,000 migrant Muslim workers, students and travelers. They come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and elsewhere – many are permanently settling as a consequence of the country’s falling birthrate, need for factory workers and carers of the elderly and children.

National Immigration Agency figures for the number of foreign residents by nationality show an increase in the amount of people from predominantly Muslim countries. In 2016, there were 220,553 Indonesian foreign residents, which has risen this year to 240,795. In the same time period, Malaysian residents have gone up from 7,526 to 15,427.

According to Global Muslim Travel Index, the number of Muslim tourists worldwide was expected to grow from 117 million in 2017, to 168 million by 2020, with an expected total spend of NT$6 trillion (US$196 billion). Tourism Bureau statistics for 2016 show that visitor numbers from Muslim countries rose by 11.1 percent between 2014 and 2016. Additionally, this year, Taiwan was rated the world’s fifth most Muslim-friendly destination among non-Muslim countries, by MasterCard and CrescentRating.

Business opportunities and political solutions create a bridge for understanding. Sticking to the letter of the Constitution and explicitly encouraging Muslims to practice their religion is a winning strategy.

While Christians are currently the world’s most widespread religious group at 31.2 percent, Pew research predicts the Muslim population is expected to grow 70 percent to around 3 billion in 2060 from 1.8 million in 2015, making it the biggest religion and comprising well over a third of the world’s total population.

Making common cause with such an important demographic obviously makes sense and there are few downsides. It would be logical for others to follow Taiwan’s example, in this case.

Taiwan is well known for many things, like night market food and semiconductor chips, but its civic software and attitude toward religious affiliation are also worthy of examination.

In 1981 the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, saying: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

But the reality is, it would appear one of the only countries in the world that practices what it preaches when it comes to tolerance, free speech and religious freedom is not even officially recognized by the United Nations. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

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Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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