Muslims need more room to worship in Hong Kong

Muslims in Hong Kong are grateful to be able to practise their religion in peace but need more facilities, saysCharley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 10:24am

Violence marred the holiday marking the end of Ramadan in Syria last month, and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on the mainland, the Uygur minority reported attempts by authorities to prevent fasting and praying during working hours. In Europe, Muslims are facing rising Islamophobia and support for anti-immigration policies. So, for many Muslims, Hong Kong is a peaceful refuge.

"I'm very happy to be able to freely practise my religion ... I've never heard anyone say they were discriminated against," says Ali Diallo, a businessman and president of African Community Hong Kong, an organisation that promotes unity and understanding between the African community and locals. Diallo, from Guinea in West Africa, came here via Guangzhou three years ago after studying economics in Britain.

"Apart from Africa, I've felt most free in Britain until recent times, when all these problems started coming up," he says. "Now I would say I prefer Hong Kong because I've never experienced any aggression or any hostility because I am Muslim."

Kashif Akhtar feels the same. He moved to Hong Kong from Pakistan 15 years ago to join family members. They have since returned to Pakistan, but Akhtar has found success here, first as an information technology expert and now working in sales for a halal restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. He chose to stay here with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.

"As a Muslim, I'm lucky I have not faced anything like anti-Muslim discrimination. Nobody picks on you or targets you or sees you differently. Sometimes maybe somebody will look at you if you're dressed differently or your appearance is different, but from a religious point of view, I don't have any problems here," he says.

There are an estimated 2.1 billion Muslims in the world from a wide variety of countries and cultures representing varying degrees of religiosity. This diversity is addressed in the very foundation of Islam, which has never been defined by race, ethnicity or culture. Technically, all a person must do to become a Muslim is to recite the Shahada: "There is no god apart from God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." All Muslims are considered equal in God's eyes.

According to Hong Kong chief imam Muhammad Arshad, there are between 200,000 and 250,000 Muslims in the city, and the population is growing. Most - about 100,000 - are from Indonesia and work as domestic helpers. The rest come from all over the world, including large populations from Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Africa. Only 20,000 or so are Hong Kong citizens.

Although most Muslims praise Hong Kong people and the government for the lack of discrimination, a significant problem faced by the community is a lack of Islamic facilities, which are being swamped by the growth of the Muslim population. The community is served by only five official mosques: the largest, Kowloon Mosque, and four on Hong Kong Island. There are also many smaller prayer halls, Islamic meeting places and informal madrassas - Islamic schools - throughout the city.

Many Muslims are desperate for larger and better equipped mosques, and the scarcity of Islamic educational options presents devout parents with the difficult choice of whether to remain in Hong Kong.

Akhtar is a typical case. His daughter studies at a Christian school that accommodates her faith, but Ashktar is concerned about a lack of Islamic higher education in the city and is eyeing a move. "We may go to Malaysia or Indonesia, or maybe even Singapore. There is more Islamic culture in those places than in Hong Kong," he says.

Ishaque Sarker, a Bangladeshi who has lived here for 22 years and has a wife and seven-year-old daughter, is in a similar situation. He is concerned about his daughter's education as she gets older. So far the schools have accommodated her faith in every way: allowing her to take a holiday for Eid ul-Fitr and providing a room to pray.

Still, Sarker says, "My dream is to have an Islamic school here."

And it is not only the schools that he finds lacking. He attends a small private mosque in Yau Ma Tei that is overflowing with people. On Fridays, more than 300 people attend prayers, and they are often forced to pray in the guest house next door. It is a segregated mosque, and the overcrowding means there is no room for women to pray. Sarker has been petitioning the government for a new space. "I want them to know that having only one Kowloon [-type] mosque is not enough," he says.

Many Muslims identify themselves as predominantly secular. Lamia Mahjoub, whose parents are from Morocco and Tunisia, came to Hong Kong from Paris four years ago to work in the restaurant business. She does not pray five times a day, or cover her head and fast during Ramadan, but she does identify herself as a Muslim, even if culturally Mahjoub sees herself as French first and Muslim second. She misses her family over Ramadan, but admits: "You know what? I miss my family more around Christmas time.

"For me, the Muslim religion comes with a culture. The culture of my parents ... That culture, the traditions, the everyday life. It is my heritage, my roots. I know how to practise; I know the history of the prophet. But since I came to Hong Kong, I've stopped practising."

For Mahjoub, Hong Kong offers a different kind of religious freedom: being able to practise her religion her own way without the judgments of more fundamentalist Muslims. "In France, if they see you eating during Ramadan and they know you're Muslim, they look at you like: 'Why are you not fasting?'"

Businessman Diallo has twin boys and a seven-month-old daughter, born on the mainland and in Hong Kong, but he does not worry about his children losing their identity. "We are still Africans, but we are happy to integrate and share values with the local people. We are very much in the local community. Identity-wise, I don't think that will change. We are attached to this saying: 'It doesn't matter how much of a tree trunk remains in the water, it will still be the trunk of a tree. It will never become a crocodile.'"