Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Taking on a new faith

As a minority religion with an image problem, Islam doesn't attract many converts in Taiwan; but the women who do embrace the faith often find it liberating

By Diana Freundl  /  STAFF REPORTER

Huda, Nadia and Selvi, shown from left to right, stand outside the Taipei Grand Mosque after a noon prayer service last week. All converts to Islam, they say their faith has given them strength.

PHOTO: DIANA FREUNDL

It was a list of questions that brought Huda (胡慧親) to the Taipei Grand Mosque. "Why can't they eat pork? Why must women cover up? And why, if men can take four wives, can't women take four husbands?"

After enrolling in a six-week course on the fundamentals of Islam she found her answers, and she found religion. "When I first heard about the course, I told myself, `This is your time to learn something new.' I discovered how to live my life according to the Koran, and now I feel very peaceful," she said.

While stories of suicide attacks and beheadings permeate news coverage from Afghanistan and the Middle East, Taipei Grand Mosque Imam Ma Shiao-chi (馬孝棋) said the number of people visiting the mosque with questions about Islam has increased.

"The news always highlights the bad things. About 90 percent of the news is negative. They hear stories about people getting their heads cut off and think Islam is a bad religion. They know very few things about Islam. They want to know what makes people do these things," he said.

Most of those going to the mosque are women, he said. Whether they were born into a non-practicing Muslim family, converted for marriage, or, like Huda, are simply curious to learn more about the religion, the women Ma meets want to better understand the role of women in Islam.

Perhaps they have no intentions of converting, Ma said, but at least they take the time to dispel a few stereotypes about the religion.

Some, however, do convert. As a teenager, Sana (鄭淑芬) researched various religions and recalls visiting several temples, but it was Islam that appealed most to her. "So many things led me to feel Islam was the right religion. ? Even, when I was a child, I never liked to eat pork," she said.

After living in Pakistan with her husband and children for eight years, Sana said she is now re-adjusting to being part of a minority religion in Taiwan.

According to various statistics on religious practices in Taiwan, most people consider themselves Taoist, Buddhist, or followers of Confucius, and in many cases a combination of all three. Christianity is also a significant religion in Taiwan, with nearly 1 million declared Christians. Taiwan has an estimated 130,000 Muslims, less than half of which are Chinese-Muslims.

"I am Chinese and I am Muslim. I respect both cultures," Sana said giving the example of wearing a white headscarf (a color often associated with death in Taiwan). "If it makes someone feel sad, I take it off."

Sana and Huda describe wearing the hijab as an honor and affirmation of their faith. They agreed, however, that while its purpose is to prevent unwanted attention to their bodies, it in fact often draws more attention. This they said is part of learning to live in a non-Muslim society.

Likewise, Huda, who works in an international trading company, was originally told she could not wear her hijab to work, as it might make clients uncomfortable. "Eventually my colleagues and boss accepted it. It took time, but they know being Muslim is an important part of my life," she said.

While he criticized the unfair portrayal of Islam in the media, Ma said Muslim practitioners in Taiwan experience little persecution from the public. One reason he said might have to do with the small number of followers. "We are very few, so we are not really a risk to them," he said.

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