As the number of international students on campus grows, so too does the religious diversity. Muslims follow certain religious observances, and Korea is slowly starting to accomodate their needs. Despite all its claims of globalization, however, KAIST is lagging behind.
We Need Prayer Rooms at KAIST
By Yehhyun Jo Contributing Reporter
Korea has traditionally been an ethnically homogeneous nation, with most foreign faces belonging to tourists and temporary guests. However, it is refreshingly clear that this is gradually changing, with the number of multiethnic families and permanent foreign residents on the rise. New waves of globalism brought on by cultural vanguards such as K-pop and economic giants such as Samsung have transformed Korean society into a hub for international exchange and growth, where it is now increasingly common to see a mix of all cultures on the streets of cities like Seoul, Daejeon, and Busan. Even college campuses, including that of KAIST, have witnessed the dramatic proliferation of English lectures and international students.
This advent of new and unfamiliar cultures, ideas, perspectives, and practices has altered not only the psychological mindsets of Koreans, but also the physical landscape of the country. In a natural process of adaptation and accommodation, Korean cityscapes now include mosques, prayer rooms, various denominations of churches and temples, halal food markets, vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and many more signs of cultural expansion. Without denying the problems that this period of change is introducing to our conservative nation, I would like to focus on one aspect of this global era within KAIST specifically.
At the moment, including exchange students, there are approximately 250 Muslim students at KAIST. As the official club serving the needs of these students, the KAIST Muslim Students Association (MSA) routinely holds meetings and prayer services for its members with the assistance of the Islamic Center of Daejeon (ICD), which is located five minutes from the school in Eoeun-dong. The Islamic faith encourages prayers every day at specific time slots on prayer mats while facing Mecca, its holiest city. As someone who has lived in Malaysia — a Muslim country — for over nine years, I am familiar with these prayers and have grown up seeing my friends partake in them. It is usually done in groups, if possible, in a prayer room that is typically gender separated. In Malaysia and all other Muslim nations, most public buildings are mandated to include permanent prayer rooms, and all schools have them as well. Secular countries with a significant Muslim demographic quickly realized the need for such facilities and most large, developed nations have installed these prayer rooms in various forms and locations. Korea has also joined in embracing this culture, with prayer rooms in places like the Coex convention center, Everland theme park, most hotels, airports, hospitals, and even a few colleges such as Hanyang University, Kyung Hee University, and Sejong University.
So it might come as a surprise that KAIST does not officially have prayer rooms available on campus. This rings true with something I saw a while back in E3-2 one evening, where I met a Muslim graduate student face down on the floor of the small lounge area at the end of the hallway, praying towards Mecca. He had lab work late at night and had to make do with his trusty prayer mat on the side of the corridor. While on a visit to the International Kitchen for a Pakistani dinner with my lab mate, I further learned that there were only two places on campus where the MSA had set up makeshift prayer areas. One was its clubroom in W2, which was being used as a prayer room instead, and the other was a public space in Nanum Hall (W7), which was also transformed into a small open prayer area. This dorm is where the International Kitchen is located and where most of the Muslim students live on campus.
Consequently, according to the Muslim students I met there, it is difficult for most students to gather at these places to pray, forcing individuals to carry around prayer mats and pray wherever they had to. In the evenings, it is particularly difficult for graduate students, who usually have lab work while most undergraduate students can simply pray in their dorm rooms. However, it is worth noting that their attitude towards this problem was not steeped in anger, resentment, or entitlement. In fact, they were more cautious than I was to demand such facilities, and told me that the school should start by building prayer rooms one at a time, in each of the North, West, and East sectors of the campus.
I cannot imagine that designating and transforming a single room for prayer at each of the major buildings at KAIST would be a politically or financially daunting task for the school’s administration. It should have happened a long time ago to serve a significant portion of the student body. I urge the administration to improve the daily quality of life of KAISTians from the basics, starting with minor but crucial tasks like building or designating prayer rooms at KAIST.
Getting to Know the Muslim Students Association
By Ada Carpenter Assistant Editor-in-Chief
The KAIST Herald spoke to three members of MSA, each at different stages of their academic lives: Aamir Malik is a PhD student, Ayesha Zia is a last-semester MS student, and Manahil Imran is a second-semester undergraduate student.
What activities or support does MSA provide for Muslim students here at KAIST?
AM: All Muslim students have certain [needs]: we eat halal food, and we pray five times a day. That’s obviously hard for people working in graduate labs, as they can’t go back to their dormitory for the prayer. So we use our clubroom as a [makeshift] prayer room. Also, although the ICD holds a congregation prayer on Fridays, during the semester it is hard for every student to attend so we arrange a small group-prayer in our clubroom every week.
We have other activities, such as lectures on stress management and dealing with research troubles, leadership training events, as well as a welcome party for new students every semester. During Ramadan, [our period of fasting], we also provide basic iftar, the meal to break the fast, for all members for the whole month.
We now plan to extend our scope, maybe doing some volunteer activities to give back to the community. We recently got in touch with some Korean Muslims here in Daejeon, [and we hope to] volunteer in elementary schools to give brief introductions to different cultures. We also want to interact with other Korean clubs here and do some collaborative activities.
How do you fund all these events?
AM: KAIST gives us a budget for the whole year, but generally our activities go beyond the administration funding, which is quite limited. We don’t charge a regular club fee but [many people] contribute for specific things such as iftar meals, our welcome party for newcomers, and trips.
What challenges do you face as Muslims in KAIST?
MI: We need to organize our time for prayers. Lecture times allow me to pray in between, but sometimes it’s very busy.
AZ: Food options are very limited — Pulbitmaru isn’t good enough quality and it’s expensive to eat every day. Cooking, even if you have access to the kitchen, also takes so much time. It would be good if there were kitchens in dorms.
AM: [The KAIST administration] should ensure that every cafeteria on campus serves halal options.
MI: [During exam week] and busy times, it’s difficult to have to go back to dorm to pray. Although we also have our clubroom, it would be much better for us to have a room in the library to be able to pray, so we are not wasting precious study time going back and forth. In the new library, though they made a global lounge, they didn’t really consider religion. They could make a multi-religion room here for prayer.
AZ: I feel like KAIST is very welcoming to other national cultures, but not very welcoming to other religions. For all events in different religions, such as Eid, we should make them more as events on campus by decorate places or serve special food in the cafeteria.
AM: They could even just start by sending a happy message from the president through email. It would show that the administration cares about us as students rather than numbers.
The whole international community here is growing exponentially. Is diversity of religion also included? Is the international community accepting of Islam and different religions?
MI: Though the international community is growing, I don’t think diversity is increasing — if anything, the larger groups of students from one country means there’s more separation.
AZ: But Korea is very safe. Within KAIST, I don’t feel like there is racism or islamophobia.
AM: The problem is not necessarily because of the administration. But they don’t have a clear policy about how to integrate the international students. They only view us as a number to better their ranking. It’s not good to promote just country-based communities with ISSS funding — they should instead encourage diversity between different countries.
AM: The second thing is that KAIST doesn’t encourage religious debate. Although there are groups like MSA and KIC [amongst others], they never encourage open discussion of certain issues. Koreans are not really aware of them. They’re shy to use English and don’t like to express their feelings towards internationals. Although, I heard, there was a debate about Muslim students between Korean students on online forums, it excluded the input of any actual Muslim student. There should be more of an open communication.
Any final messages to the KAIST community?
AM: We plan to open MSA to other clubs and other groups — we want to build awareness and make a positive image of Muslims in Korea, to show the true side of Islam that is not often portrayed in the media.