“I learnt to cook while doing my compulsory service in the Taiwanese army,” reminiscences Dr Nouruddin Y. Ma. We are chatting at a café in Taipei, where he is accompanying a media delegation from the UAE and Jordan.
“No halal food was served in the army, of course. But Muslim soldiers like me were given separate utensils and supplied with fish, which we could cook for ourselves. This was the respect shown by the government. In fact, my comrades envied me as I would be comfortably cooking fish for myself while they attended the drills. I am very happy and proud to be a Taiwanese Muslim.”
There are about 170,000 Muslims in Taiwan, out of which only about 60,000 are Taiwanese citizens, mostly descendants of the ethnic Hui people who migrated from mainland China in the late 1940s.
The majority is made up of foreign workers, mainly from Indonesia and Thailand. Put together, Muslims are but a drop in the ocean in this country of 24 million. But they face no discrimination and are allowed to practise their faith freely.
Professor Nouruddin, a PhD from San Francisco State University, has made it his mission to increase awareness about Muslim culture among the Taiwanese, and also to make Taiwan a destination favoured by foreign Muslim travellers, especially those from the Middle East.
“We have a very limited number of Muslims here. People don’t really understand us. But that is actually an opportunity for us. Chinese people respect anyone who follows any religion — they think that those who go to mosques, temples and churches are good people.”
But has the negative press that Islam and Muslims have received, especially since the attacks of 9/11, changed people’s attitudes? “Not at all. There is no effect of any news coverage. Local people just don’t care about international issues. They are simply not familiar with that stuff,” he said.
Dr Nouruddin believes that Chinese people feel their social mores and those of other Eastern cultures, such as Islam, are similar. “We, Chinese, value family a lot. People work all their lives to earn money for their families. Education is given prime importance; it is very crucial for Chinese people. We also appreciate children being disciplined. These are also Muslim values. Those who know about Islam appreciate its social values, such as absence of drinking and gambling. Both the government and people of Taiwan are very welcoming.”
The country has six mosques, with two in the capital Taipei, including the largest and oldest, the Taipei Grand Mosque. These mosques not only serve as places of worship but also act as community centres. On Fridays, there are sermons in both Chinese (Mandarin) and English (for the small but growing number of people from south Asia and the Middle East who have either made Taiwan their home or are frequent business visitors). There is a festive atmosphere every Friday, with people of different nationalities bringing along homemade food from their respective cuisines and sharing with others.
The authorities are trying to attract more and more visitors from the subcontinent and the Middle East to the small island. The idea is to find a niche market for travellers. Several small businessmen from the region visit Taiwan regularly or have small trading offices on the island. The country is a world leader in the manufacture of high-tech components, such as semi-conductors, which are sought by businesses worldwide. “This is where bodies such as the Chinese Muslim Association come in. The government is trying to create a Muslim-friendly environment by cooperating with the CMA, which issues the Halal certification for restaurants. The Tourism Bureau is working with travel agents and providing training courses.”
Many people have an image of Taiwan as just a manufacturing, almost industrial centre. While this is true to an extent, an hour’s drive from the bustling capital reveals the beauty of this island, 70 per cent of which is mountainous. In the central and eastern parts of Taiwan, one finds some of the most spectacular mountain-biking trails, and sights such as the Sun Moon Lake.
If Taipei aims to attract Muslim travellers, it has its work cut out. Language can be the main obstacle, followed by food. Even some of those in the tourist trade hardly speak any English. And the shortage of restaurants serving halal food is obvious enough. Dr Nouruddin believes there is a reason for this. “The Muslims who first came to the island in 1949 [from mainland China] tended to be very well educated. They didn’t want to do non-white-collar jobs such as working in or even running restaurants. Hence, there was always a shortage of halal restaurants. This gap was filled, to an extent, by Muslim immigrants from countries such as Thailand.”
Seated in his small office inside the Taipei Grand Mosque complex, Salahuding Ma, the secretary-general of the CMA, is very optimistic about attracting more visitors from the Middle East and the subcontinent and increasing the cultural exchange. “Our association [the CMA] was established in 1937, in mainland China. In Taiwan, we are registered with the government but are supported by donations from local Muslims. We are trying to bring communities and people together, especially travellers from the Middle East. We are working with the authorities to increase the number of a) halal and b) Muslim-friendly restaurants. We are making huge progress — even exporting halal food to other Far East countries.”
Salahuding, too, asserts that his community faces no discrimination in democratic Taiwan. “We are fully free to follow our traditions. And socially, there is no friction at all between the communities. Taiwanese society is tolerant.”