Peace be with you: 175 years of Islam in Hong Kong

In an increasingly Islamophobic world, Hong Kong – with its 250,000 Muslim residents – is a rare example of peaceful cultural co-existence. Stuart Heaver charts the Islamic community’s history in the city

 Friday prayers at the Kowloon Mosque, in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photos: Bruce Yan; Stuart Heaver; David Wong

The terrorist atrocities in Paris on January 7 and the recent filmed executions by Islamic State have raised fears of a backlash against law-abiding Islamic communities. In Hong Kong, Muslims have been embedded in civic society since the first Indian lascars arrived on East India Company ships in the 1840s, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

One hundred years ago today, the Indian Muslim 5th Light Infantry Regiment in Singapore, about to depart for garrison duties in Hong Kong, went on a rampage, killing 47 British soldiers and civilians. The Singapore Mutiny, as it was to become known, was inspired by a jihad (holy struggle) declared by Turkey, which had recently entered the first world war on Germany’s side. The bloody incident sent shock waves through the British colonial establishment in Hong Kong.

In stark contrast to the vast media coverage and high-profile show of unity that followed the recent events in Paris, the Singapore Mutiny was quietly glossed over in the local press as a “riot” caused by “jealousy about promotions”. Once quelled, the incident was played down – and for very good reason.

The Kowloon Mosque.

With many British soldiers and policemen having returned to Europe to fight on the Western Front, the colonial system was highly dependent on the so-called public protectors of Hong Kong; the mainly Muslim soldiers, policemen, prison officials and dockyard guards.

Neither anti-Islamic sentiment nor pro-Islamic fervour inspired by the violence in Singapore could be risked in wartime, so the loyalty and positive image of the Muslim population was never brought into question. Nor has it been since, in Hong Kong.

However, post-9/11 paranoia and the stream of reports in the international media of atrocities supposedly carried out in the name of Islam have heaped pressure on the city’s Islamic community and helped create potentially dangerous misconceptions, despite 175 years of positive contribution to Hong Kong’s success.

Azizul Rahman Suffiad, chairman of the Islamic Union.

“I am a fifth-generation Muslim in Hong Kong,” says Azizul Rahman Suffiad, the distinguished and softly spoken white-haired chairman of the Islamic Union. One of the most influential Muslim organisations in the city, the union was founded some 80 years ago.

“My earliest [known] ancestor came to Hong Kong with the British East India Company in the 1860s as a merchant,” he says, going on to explain how Indian soldiers asked for and were granted a site for worship, inside the Whitfield army barracks, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The successor to that temporary mosque is located next to Kowloon Park and now sees up to 4,000 worshippers gather each Friday for prayers.

Another mosque was built inside Stanley Prison for Muslim prison guards.

Many lascars (sailors or militiamen from, mainly, the Indian subcontinent employed on European ships), sepoys (soldiers from the subcontinent) and Muslim merchants married local Cantonese women, and their descendents were known as “local boys”, many of whom became highly respected law-enforcement officers and civil servants.

When the first Muslims gathered for prayer on Lascar Row, in Sheung Wan, in the 1840s, it is said the local Chinese were so sensitive to their visitors’ traditions, they would not walk through the area if they were transporting pigs or pork.

Qamar Z. Minhas, chairman of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund.

Qamar Z. Minhas is chairman of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund, the coordinating body for all Islamic affairs in Hong Kong, and he is proud of the history of the five principal mosques that his organisation manages.

“Land for our mosque in Shelley Street was a gift to the Muslims from the Queen of England,” says the smartly dressed businessman. He, like Suffiad, is sensitive to the high-profile media reports of terrorist atrocities.

“Of course, we get upset by reading the news, especially when the crimes are undertaken in the name of Islam,” he says. “But, as a Pakistani, I have to say we are victims of that, too. The same group of people killed 132 schoolchildren in northern Pakistan [in December]. People who are talking against Islam should understand we are suffering, too, you know. We have condemned these acts and we are victims, too.”

Minhas points out that, due to sound management and mutual respect, there is no tradition of sectarianism within Muslim Hong Kong.

“This is possibly the only place in the world where Sunni and Shia Muslims will worship shoulder to shoulder in the same mosque,” he says.

It is estimated that of the 250,000 Muslims who currently call Hong Kong home, most are Indonesian (148,000). Ethnic Chinese Muslims number 30,000 and there are 17,000 South Asian Muslims, most of whom are Pakistani. In contrast to the widespread media images of terrorists and fiery clerics, the most common face of Islam in Hong Kong is young and female; the domestic helpers who gather in Victoria Park on Sunday afternoons to socialise and relax.

“The Indonesian maids coming to people’s homes are a sort of Muslim education for local families – when they ask for time to pray or not to cook pork,” says Jeffrey Moosa, founder and adviser to the Hong Kong Islamic Youth Association (HKIYA), which has its offices at the Osman Ramju Sadick Islamic Centre, in Wan Chai. “So local families get to learn something about Islam in a positive way.”

Jeffrey Moosa, of the Islamic Youth Association of Hong Kong.

Moosa is a “local boy” who worked for 30 years as a customs officer. His association was one of the first in the city to speak out after the recent murders in Paris of 12 people by two Islamist terrorists at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He issued a formal press release denouncing the attacks and the violence that followed. Moosa and the group’s chairman, Ali Zaiq, who works as a student counsellor, maintain that if the terrorists had acquired a deeper understanding of the Koran, they would not have committed such violence, and if non-Muslims had a better understanding of Islam, the recent incidences in Paris could have been avoided.

“If the [Charlie Hebdo] cartoonists knew what is written in the Holy Koran about ridiculing the Prophet, they would not have done it. If the cartoonists respected their own mother, would they publish a crude drawing of her naked and looking ridiculous?” he asks.

The HKIYA press release lists numerous direct quotations from the Koran instructing Muslims on how to deal with those who ridicule the teachings of Islam, all of which advocate patience, dignity and self-restraint.

“In the Koran, it is clear that if you kill one innocent you are killing humanity,” says Zaiq, who also fears that the media coverage of Islamic extremists is increasingly biased. “I have never heard someone saying, when reading about incidents in the USA or Canada when people get out a gun at a school and start shooting all the children, no one will mention the religion or race [of the perpetrator]; no one says a Christian or a Hindu or a Buddhist did this,” he says.

However, “this discrimination against Muslims does not occur in Hong Kong”, says Moosa. “We enjoy freedom of religion and good communications with different faiths.”

Indeed the Islamic Union, the Islamic Community Fund’s Board of Trustees and the HKIYA all report that, since 9/11, the number of conversions to Islam has been increasing. It seems the more people are horrified by media reports of extremist atrocities, the more they decide to explore the true teachings of the religion.

A report in the South China Morning Post dated February 23, 1915, plays down the Singapore Mutiny, in which 47 British soldiers and civilians were killed by Muslim servicemen.

“Strangely, when there is a terrorist act, people approach us and convert. This is the spark that created the interest,” says Moosa.

All the officials firmly refute any claims that young Muslims in Hong Kong are being radicalised or politicised by recent world events and explain that because the Board of Trustees manages all five of the principal mosques, they can ensure the teaching by the imams is based on tolerance and peace.

Nor does there seem to be any evidence of radicalisation at Muslim schools. At the government-aided Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College, in Chai Wan, cricket nets are more visible than copies of the Koran. The vice-principal is former financial analyst Abu Bakar Ma Wing Cheung, an eighth-generation Chinese Muslim.

“The students here are 90 per cent of Pakistan origin [which explains the cricket nets] but we also have some kids from Nepal, some Chinese and some from Sudan. We have two Iranian girls and some from the Philippines and Indonesia. We really cater for non-Chinese,” he explains.

Ma describes how things became much tougher for Muslims after 1997, when British rule ceased and any civil service job or university place demanded strong Chinese-language skills.

“The government has tried to make some adjustments for the non-Chinese students. Things are improving,” says Ma, who thinks his 450 or so students now have similar opportunities to those from other schools.

“We cannot escape the news coverage and if we avoid it the students will only find out via the internet, so we discuss these issues openly in class,” he says. “I cannot speak for the students but, in general, they do not agree with violence and terrorism.”

Fatima Ong, a coordinator at the Hong Kong Islamic Youth Association (HKIYA) and Ali Zaiq, HKIYA chairman.

Ma says he is not concerned about any of his students becoming radicalised because they have opportunities; job prospects and access to decent housing. He also explains that none of his female students are forced to wear the hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest) and there have been no cases of overt anti-Islamic sentiments reported by the students.

Nevertheless, many Muslims do report being asked forthright questions about their religion and having experienced uncomfortable social situations.

“When I wear the hijab, many people ask me why I am a Muslim and think I must have this problem because of the negative publicity about Islam,” says Fatima Ong, a coordinator at the HKIYA.

“I became a Muslim 20 years ago,” says Ong. “My parents are Chinese and not Muslim but at my Chinese school, I sat next to a Pakistani classmate and I was always interested in religion and knowing who God is. My parents are Buddhist and most of my friends are Christian. I was only 14 when I converted but, for many years, I did not practise. At first I did not tell my parents.”

Ong says many Chinese parents disapprove of the hijab because it makes their daughters look like Indonesian domestic helpers but, once in a while, other assumptions are made.

“Once I took the minibus home and the news was on the TV and talking about Islam. The passengers all looked at the news and then looked at me. They were talking very loudly and then started talking in whispers. I told myself to keep calm and just keep smiling.”

Watching worshippers arrive for afternoon prayers at the Kowloon Mosque, it is quickly evident that Islam, which has 1.6 billion followers worldwide, is an international and universal religion. Men arrive dressed in tailored suits, England football shirts, traditional sherwani jackets, designer jeans and smart leather jackets, and appear to be from a wide range of ethnic origins: South Asian and Indonesian to African and Chinese. The diversity in the women, who pray separately from the men, is hidden by their hijabs.

Mohammed Ali Diallo, a volunteer for Serving Team Islam.

Mohammed Ali Diallo is another Muslim who contradicts lazy stereotypes. A volunteer for the Serving Islam Team organisation, Diallo is a handsome, well-dressed and articulate businessman from Guinea, in West Africa. He runs a busy import/export operation from a small office on the 13th floor of an office block in Tsim Sha Tsui.

“The great, great misconception of our time [derives from the fact that] most people reporting about Islam only talk about the tiny minority who are causing these troubles. They never talk about the millions of peaceful Muslims who do not associate with these acts,” he says, echoing a theme raised by many others in local Islamic communities.

“Moderate rational Muslims or respected scholars who really understand the teachings are not given a media platform. When joint letters are published by leading Islamic scholars condemning Islamic State and accusing them of hijacking our religion, this is not widely reported,” says Diallo.

Despite his hard work dispelling myths about Islam, he does not think Hongkongers are typically enthusiastic about spiritual matters.

“Mostly, in this part of the world, people are focused on life only. What is surrounding us is a rush for the dollar,” he says, with a smile.

Maybe Diallo has identified a key reason for religious tolerance in Hong Kong.

As a professional anthropologist, Professor Paul O’Connor is not entirely convinced of the money-trumps-religion theory but agrees that approaches to spirituality in Hong Kong are different because there is no predominant religion within the establishment. He studied the local Muslim population for five years for his widely acclaimed book Islam in Hong Kong.

“When I first came here, 16 years ago, I was genuinely amazed about how multicultural Hong Kong is and how people just seem to get along. The British and Chinese influences are very important but the Muslim contribution goes back a long way, over 150 years. It shows they can all co-exist peacefully and there is no need for conflict,” he says.

“Of course, people are fascinated by Islam and in Hong Kong they are very curious but also very open-minded. Some people just cannot comprehend the connection between Islam and terrorism but, the truth is, there really isn’t one.”

To illustrate his point he quotes a press report from last year about Elliot Rodger, a privileged young man who went on a killing spree in California that claimed seven lives, including his own, because of his failure to attract a girlfriend.

“Should we take from this case that all young men who don’t have a girlfriend present a violent threat to women?”

Abu Bakar Ma Wing Cheung (centre), an eighth-generation Muslim Chinese and vice-principal of the Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College, in Chai Wan, with some of his students.

O’Connor does not think there is any religious prejudice in Hong Kong, so could the city’s hybrid culture and tradition of religious tolerance be used as a role model for nations struggling with the growth of Islamophobia?

“People can learn from Hong Kong, yes, but you can’t just transplant things from here – that would be wrong. People are very upfront and brash about people’s differences here. That’s their way of being inclusive but this would not go down well in Europe, for example,” he says, explaining that domestic problems in Western nations present their own issues.

“In America, there is endemic racism as a legacy of slavery, segregation and incarceration. Europe has a problem with Islam in the same way the USA has a problem with black people. They have seen Islam as the opposite to all things European since the time of the Crusades [a series of Roman Catholic-sanctioned military campaigns that began in the 11th century]. Never has there been a way to see Islam as indigenous, but Islam has been part of China since the 8th century – they have a long past here.”

Despite frustration within the local Islamic community about the media coverage of their religion, it seems Hongkongers are just not buying into the “fear Islam” narrative.

Islam today is as an important and respected part of Hong Kong’s dynamic hybrid culture as it was 100 years ago, when the British censored the details of the Singapore Mutiny. Back then, a bigger geopolitical game was in play, as Islamic sentiment was being manipulated by Germany to undermine British colonial interests in Asia.

Many educated Muslims privately express suspicion that games are being played now, with the modern media portrayal of Islam, and some are sceptical about the sudden emergence of well-funded extreme Islamic groups from remote regions with highly impressive PR capabilities.

At the Osman Ramju Sadick Islamic Centre, Zaiq describes the various facilities on site, including a legal advice centre, a clinic, a shelter for homeless domestic workers and a canteen.

“The canteen is very popular because it has the very best halal dim sum in Hong Kong,” he says.

Chinese food that accommodates Islamic beliefs just might be the perfect symbol of the local Muslim community’s successful fusion into the city’s hybrid identity.

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