[Symposium]Understanding the Middle East

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[Symposium]Understanding the Middle East

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Academics, government officials and other experts from the Middle East and South Korea gather for the fifth South Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum last weekend at the Itaewon Mosque. The sessions focused on ways to build greater understanding and cooperation between Korea and the Middle East. The event was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry.

Knowledge about Islam and the Middle East is limited in Korea, where many influences from the outside world have been filtered through the prism of the West. The recent kidnapping of Koreans in Afghanistan and outdated high school textbooks add to a negative image of the Middle East and Islam among the public.
To address these issues and discuss ways to improve relations with the region, not only on the economic front but also on the cultural side, academic experts from Korea and the Middle East joined government officials at a forum sponsored by the Foreign Ministry at the country’s largest mosque in Itaewon over the weekend.
Lee hee-soo, director of the Korea Institute of Islamic Culture and professor of anthropology at Hanyang University, pointed out that many of the prevailing problems of perception were caused at the grassroots level by education.
“The official textbooks in high school and middle school rely mainly on sources from the West. We don’t have many direct channels of contact with the Middle East region, and this is why there is a wide range of distortion and misunderstanding among the Korean people,” said the professor.
He added that the same could be said of perceptions about Korea in the Middle East; recent research revealed that textbooks in countries like Syria had erroneous information about Korea. For example, one states that the Korean War was initiated by the South and not the North.
While both sides agreed that little has been done to correct such problems until now, Seo Jeong-min, a professor of Middle East and African studies at Hankuk University and a former Middle East news correspondent, said that in recent years, hallyu, the Korean wave of popular cultural exports, has won fans among the younger generation in the Middle East as TV dramas are shown in many countries. He suggested that such a following should be used as a base to build better understanding.
Much of the image of Korea in the Middle East was formed through economic ties. In the 1970s, many South Korean companies went to the Middle East during the region’s first construction boom. Currently a new building boom is again bringing a great influx of South Korean companies, forum participants said.
“The image of Koreans is that they are hardworking but besides that, we have very little cultural contact with Korea,” said Saleh Abdel Rahman Al-Mani, dean of King Saud University’s college of law in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“But two or three years ago we had some people from universities in Saudi Arabia visiting Korea. We found the level of education very good and said that we ought to send our students to Korea, just as we send them to America. So now we are sending students to Korea. This is a new element,” said the dean, adding that schools are now working aggressively to bring South Korean students to his country as well.
“It should be noted that more than 70 percent of the population is under 30 in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, a new approach has to be aimed toward young people. Currently, 46 Saudi students are enrolled at Korean universities. I look forward to increasing this number to 400 by the end of 2008,” the professor said.
Others at the forum said that interest in South Korea has risen as a result of disappointment with other countries. “In our part of the world, people who have invested for centuries in relations with the Western world have a lot of disappointments,” said Hasan Abu Nimah, director of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Jordan. “They see in these relations new avenues between the [Middle] East and Asia ― and Korea is at the forefront. People look forward to exploring this new relationship.”
Ma Young-sam, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s African and Middle Eastern Affairs Bureau, stressed that changing attitudes in the government provide a good opportunity to expand relations and to capitalize on this. In the wake of the two kidnapping incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan in which three Koreans were killed, Ma said, “There was a lot of criticism in Korea that we have a very poor understanding of Islam and its culture and also that there is a lack of human relationships with the Islamic world. Such a realization has caused the Korean government to make a comprehensive review of our approach towards the Middle East.”
Efforts to establish a new Middle East Society in Korea, an organization intended to promote ties with the Middle East ranging from culture to economic cooperation, are underway, Ma said. The organization is expected to have its headquarters in Seoul, with various branches to be established in member countries by the first half of next year. Funding is planned to come from the ministry’s own budget, with contributions from various countries in the Middle East. It will be the country’s first government-driven approach to fundamentally change the relationship between Korea and the Middle East.
“To most Koreans, the Middle East has long been regarded mainly as a source of national income and oil. However, recently more Koreans have started to take an interest in Islamic culture, society and history, and this interest should increase,” Ma said. “Bilateral relations based solely on economic considerations are bound to be weak.”
Although Korea has a large Christian population, forum participants said, religion should not pose a problem in nurturing ties between the country and the Middle East.
“When we say Arab, we mean Muslims and Christians both. The problem has never really been between Muslims and Christians nor Muslims and Jews, in spite of Israel, which largely destroyed the relations between the Arabs and Jews,” said Nimah. However, Professor Al Mani warned, missionaries are not welcome. Other beliefs are respected in Arab countries but not the imposition of other religions.
Participants, including Moon Chung-in, a professor at Yonsei University, noted that South Koreans as a whole, including Christians, have to learn to be more sensitive to foreign cultures.
“I hope that Korean Christian workers show more cultural sensitivity, more understanding of other cultures,” Moon said.

South Korea co-hosted the fifth South Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum on Dec. 8 where leading figures from government, business, religious groups and universities from Korea and 19 Middle Eastern countries gathered to discuss ways to improve relations between South Korea and the Middle East.

By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
Photo by Kang Uk-hyun
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