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Guest Impressions
Thursday, 04 October 2018 12:43

Taiwan’s tolerance of Islam and Muslims

Taiwan's religious tolerance, especially towards Islam is exceptional.

Taiwan has rolled out the welcome mat to Muslims and it’s an approach that is winning hearts and minds. Investment is coming in and the Muslim population is steadily growing and – compared to other countries - not perceived as an existential threat.

The International Halal Expo - which promotes food and drink permissible according to Islamic law - will take place this month in Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City, from Oct. 25-28.

Muslim migrant workers are building the economy, caring for a rapidly ageing 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 the country’s president has instituted a “Muslim ban.” In the United Kingdom, leading politicians pour scorn on women who wear burqas and even famously liberal Scandinavian countries like Denmark have implemented “burqa bans.”

Article 13 of Taiwan’s 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.

“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 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 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 thousands.

At 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 curious 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 the exile of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.

Since the 1980s, persecuted Muslims from Myanmar and Thailand have also found sanctuary here.

Thousands of migrant 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 travellers. They come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and elsewhere – many are permanently settling as a consequence of the country’s falling birth-rate, 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 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’ – the world’s leading authority on Halal travel.

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.

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 it would be logical for others to follow Taiwan’s example.

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.

Darul Ihsan Media Desk

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