Islamophobia in Korea, and the Story of Tablo

Those of us who have lived in Korea know that regardless of what most people think here–for I think a lot of Koreans, especially younger ones, are relatively open-minded by comparison–the bigots and morons get pretty loud, and they don’t seem to get challenged on it.

(Maybe that’s normal in the USA or other places: I’m not sure. It sure wasn’t so normal in the part of Canada in which I grew up. We had bigots, of course, and there was a degree of ignorance about race, multiculturalism, and difference; my best friend in high school had experiences of going out to the countryside and having people point and say, in shock, “You’re black!” Those were relatives of a friend of his, and they were nice actually, but they were ignorant too. The thing is, we also had active anti-racism campaigns, and the promotion of respect for racial and cultural diversity, however poorly defined, was at least consciously included in both school curriculum and public life. This is why I perceive it the loudness of these bigots, and the lack of challenge presented to them by the more moderate majority, particularly Korean–it may be common worldwide, I’ve no idea, but for me it is “other” than what I’ve been trained and raised to expect.)

So take this with a grain of salt, but I’m not the only one to have noted that the Korean media seems to have a particular pattern in its handling of diversity in Korea, of race, and of difference. And the pattern, at least perceived through the language and culture barrier through which I gaze at Korea, looks like one orgiastic frenzy of intolerance and silliness after another.

It seems now that perhaps this pattern has taken a life of its own far beyond the autocatalytic cycle of the past–where the hate-frenzy of a small group fueled the media frenzy, which widened the public reaction, which encouraged the media to rant more, and so on. In fact, the title of this article linked above explicitly compares the Mad Cow Disease panic of 2008 and the mob-like harassment of a “Tablo” to what seems to be the next big hate-fest. And who is the next contestant on blame-the-non-Korean?

It looks like it’s Muslims, according to this article.

Such-and-such European country was ruined by Muslim immigrants, and the same thing is happening in Korea too/will happen if we’re not careful.” This is the meme that seems to be getting wider and wider circulation in Korea, along with the hoary old lie that this or that group of non-Koreans is more dangerous or prone to criminality than Koreans themselves. (Crime among the very broad and nebulously defined group “foreigners” is rising rapidly, though as far as I know it’s not even close to on a par with crimes among Koreans alone: but that group includes both legal immigrant factory and education workers, and yakuza and tong members. Er… And that’s ignoring the possibility I suggested recently that maybe crime among non-Koreans in Korea is rising because of the influence of the lawlessness and common violence in Korean society; that, in other words, Korea might just be rubbing off on non-Koreans who settle here.)

Now, for those not following the antics of the Korean net-rabble, the reference to Tablo might be a bit opaque. He is–or rather was–a rapper in a group called Epik High whose educational credentials were questioned fairly angrily by Korean netizens. (Was, because I’ve heard his recent harassment by netizens has led him to state publicly that he’d rather not be a public figure in Korea anymore.) Apparently it was just too incredible to believe that he’d majored in English and English Literature at Stanford University. So incredible that a group of Koreans ranted, harangued, and harassed him as a liar and demanded “the truth.” Every proof he offered brought only responses of, “That’s fake, you liar!” Despite a fairly long and tortuous period of harassment by morons–who declared every proof a sham, and apparently even sent threatening emails to a professor who appeared on Korean television to affirm that this Tablo fellow had indeed been one of his students–things didn’t stop until, finally, the Korean police claimed that, yes indeedy, they had “proof” that he had indeed graduated from Stanford.

Because, you know, that’s why Korea has police: to check for netizens whether someone’s education credentials are authentic. Not, say, to police traffic, or arrest rapists, or patrol the streets, or come to help someone who is being assaulted in her house, or silly stuff like that. It boggles the mind that police actually had to investigate this, when in fact what they really needed to do was track down the idiots who were harassing this guy and arrest them for stalking, harassment, and whatever else they did.

Or are those kinds of actions legal in Korea?

The rumor seems to have been started by a 57-year-old Korean-American; an arrest warrant for this idiot has been filed with INTERPOL, but I haven’t seen any news on his arrest yet. But lest you think that it’s just a few people harassing the man, several tens of thousands of individuals are members of the main anti-Tablo group online, even after the main anti-Tablo group was blocked.

(Now, not all of them are active, hateful, foaming-at-the-mouth idiots; surely some of them joined after the shock of seeing how many people had joined the group, and signed up in order to watch the circus freakshow firsthand. (Just as, for example, Miss Jiwaku signed up on the Anti-English Spectrum cafe, mostly out of shock and curiosity about whether so many idiots really had joined the famous anti-foreigner hate group).

Well, at least according to this article, the next big “Korean wave” (of hateful rhetoric and confrontational ego-masturbation by, yes, a minority of idiots) is going to be directed a Muslims, framed as “wreckers” of Korean society. How such a tiny minority of foreign residents in Korea could accomplish this is not explained by the angry nuts.

Muslims in Korea, and people who look like they might be Muslim, take care and be aware: these are the sorts of people badmouthing you now, and apparently no kind of proof of your peacefulness, good-citizenry, taxpaying, essential decency will be enough for this particular crowd of rabble. My advice: wait out the storm, keep being nice, but don’t travel alone. I’ve known too many people who were threatened with, or met with, violence because some radnom moron was angry about so-called international issues like who won a gold medal in speed skating, or what George Bush said about North Korea.

It’s sad to see Korea following in the footsteps of the right wing nutters of America–though it’s worth noting the article claims it’s from Europe that such ideas have been transmitted here. There are voices of calm sanity, pointing out that this rising anti-multiculturalism seems to stem more from economic problems that from any real negative impact by Muslim immigrants to Korea, but then again, that’s nothing new. (See the final paragraph of this post, if you want examples of other hatemongering xenophobic shenanigans… in this case, by the branch of the government tasked with dealing with immigration. Well, then…)

As Miss Jiwaku commented to me, when we discussed how a student essentially tried to tell me off (and set the boundaries for classroom discussion, and inform me of the fact that as a non-Korean I naturally don’t and congenitally am unable to care about Koreans! [!*#%#@]) for being honest about a simple question raised in class (which I touched on, ever so gently, here)…

Well, as Miss Jiwaku said, “There are so many crazy people here.”

She’s right. They’re not the majority, of course; lots of good and decent people call Korea home.

Unfortunately, good and decent does the target of these hate-fests little good, when good and decent refuses to confront, rein in, shame, or shout down the hateful moron minority when they start frothing at the mouth and spoiling for a (usually unfair) fight.

4 thoughts on “Islamophobia in Korea, and the Story of Tablo

  1. Thanks for posting this! I’m a Muslim, and I’m really interested in going to Korea, as the culture fascinates me, but after reading this, I think I’ll wait a few years, and see if the situation calms down any. It most likely won’t, though, considering how Islamophobia seems to be getting more widespread all over the world.

  2. Haleema,

    Well, that post is a few years old, and I haven’t noticed people getting any more anti-Muslim than before. (Or, rather, I should say, the gusts of popular xenophobia blew in other directions: these days, the panic seems to be directed at Chinese of Korean ancestry, Sino-Koreans, whatever we’re supposed to call people in that background; there’s been a few highly-publicized crimes, and Korean society is always eager to believe foreigners are dangerous — despite the fact that Korean-on-Korean crime rates are much higher.) In fact, I’ve run into more anti-Semitism (ie. anti-Jewish feeling) than anti-Muslim, though there is a degree of ignorance about Islam, a semi-common assumption that people from places like the Middle East and North are “dirty” (which is hilarious considering just how bad hygiene is here: I love to point out that given the expectation of wudu, the hygiene of practicing Muslims is likely at least as good as most Koreans — and, given the frequency of handwashing-after-doing-one’s-business I’ve seen in public bathrooms over the years, I’d bet on the average practicing Muslim to be cleaner; certainly, while I found Indonesia kind of hygenically terrifying — the water quality was horrifying in many places, especially in Jakarta — Indonesian people were usually scrupulously clean).

    Now, I think you might have some eye-opening experiences if you come to Korea and either look like you’re of Middle-Eastern descent, or openly discuss your religion. I don’t know where you live now, but those Koreans who are bigoted and stupid, tend to be more overt and straightfoward in their bigotry, because there are fewer mechanisms in Korean society to punish those kinds of idiocy when they’re expressed publicly. Probably people will ask you whether you liked bin Laden, or whether you know any terrorists. (If you don’t say anything and are somewhat fair-skinned, of course, they may mistake you for someone of European ancestry, and will treat you relatively better.)

    However, I don’t think you’d be in any more danger on the streets than anyone else, or at least not any more than other foreign women. I’m guessing that Islamophobia here (which is sort of second-order, derived from Western media mostly) is much less noticeable than in places like the US/Canada, Britain, and other places in Europe. But I’m a white, Canadian man, so I’m just guessing. I’ve not met a lot of Muslims here, though obviously there is a population in Seoul and some other places. (There’s a ton of Halal food shops near the mosque in Seoul, and definitely a Muslim population (from Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, and some other places too I’d guess) down in Ansan as well.)

  3. Hi,

    I am also from Canada. Originally I am of Pakistani descent, so I am wary of the connotations of being a foreigner (especially the kind I would be).

    How do you see things now? I know quite some time has passed since your original post so I’d like your reaction and opinion.

    Are Muslims and many other minorities treated poorly or seen in a bad light even now?

    I see nothing wrong with being on the edge as things are rough out in the world, but being a little informed could go a long way. Seeing it that way would you recommend I ever look to find work in South Korea? Or even travel there?


    1. Wow, this is an old post. I would say that the Islamophobia in Korea is probably less than you’d see in certain parts of North America and Western Europe, but you’re likelier to encounter flat-out racism in its place unless you can pass for Korean—or, if you can pass for white, you’ll encounter less of it, and it’ll be couched more in Korean racial anxiety (which, in a lot of ways, is like class anxiety elsewhere, where races are ranked into classes by the socioeconomic and political power of the nations associated with those races in most Koreans’ minds).

      Whether it’s worth seeking work or living here, or traveling: well, it depends how thick your skin is, but the thing to know about Korea is that the society isn’t really willing to take seriously the idea you could choose to emigrate here long-term or permanently. People will ask you when you plan to return to your home country, as if that’s inevitable. And if you settled and “married in” with a Korean, you need to know she would be taking a certain amount of shit from strangers probably for the rest of her life, as would any “mixed-blood” children you had. Some people will object to my saying that, but it’s certainly what I’ve seen, and what my wife has seen, and is one reason we plan to leave before our son gets old enough to be affected by it.

      Anyway, here’s a more recent take on the question that I posted to Quora this summer:

      Read Gord Sellar's answer to Do Koreans dislike Muslims? on Quora

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