As kimono-clad people danced through the streets of the Minami Otsuka district of northern Tokyo during a summer festival last month, a small Pakistani curry stall was doing a roaring trade.
The stall, run by local Muslims, sold out its entire stock of some 200 trays of curry, Tunisian salad and Moroccan tea within a couple of hours.
“Some customers seem to like our food so much and asked us where we run a restaurant,” said Aquil Siddiqui, 58, a Pakistani resident of Otsuka and a representative of Otsuka Mosque, one of about 60 mosques in Japan.
“Food is the most effective way of bridging the gap with Japanese people, who are not so familiar with our customs,” he said.
The food stall was the latest effort by members of the mosque over the past year to eradicate local people’s prejudice or fears of Muslims amid a barrage of media reports that have tended to link the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States with Islam.
The attacks have changed many aspects of Muslim people’s lives, even in Japan. The largest change here may well be that it has made both the Japanese public and Muslims realize how little people in this country know about Muslims.
“Japanese people usually have very limited knowledge of Muslims and thus tend to blindly believe views that are mainly imported from the United States or Europe,” Aquil said.
Otsuka Mosque, a place of worship for about 150 Muslim residents of the area, received a number of harassing phone calls in the month after the attacks, he added.
“We realized that we have to make more efforts to win understanding from the Japanese public that Islam is in principle a very peaceful religion,” he said.
In order to explain the beliefs of Islam, the mosque has invited local residents, students and other people to discuss the essence of the religion on a number of occasions over the past year.
Kazuichiro Ogihara, who runs a local fruit stand and chairs the organizing committee of the community festival, admitted that some local residents expressed fear when the mosque was built three years ago.
“We simply did not know much about their style, customs or nationalities, and we were sort of afraid when they gave the impression that they are extremely devoted to their religion,” he said, adding that that image faded soon after locals began communicating with their new Muslim neighbors.
“Their food was so good, although I was unfamiliar with it, and probably the same thing can be said about Muslim people themselves,” he said.
The past year also witnessed a growing interest in Islam here, as shown by the surge in sales of books about the religion and Middle East history.
According to officials of Sanseido Co., the largest book store chain in Japan, sales of Islam-related books soared in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
“It was not just books focusing on current affairs (in the Middle East), but more academic books studying the essence of Islam or the Koran that saw a great jump in sales after the incident,” said a Sanseido official in charge of books on religion.
While book sales have been in a gradual decline since peaking last winter, sales are still much higher than before Sept. 11.
“It was the first time at our store for Islam-related books to rank alongside those on Buddhism or Christianity,” she said.
For Khalid Higuchi, president of the Japan Muslim Association, the last year has been the busiest since he retired from his job six years ago. He has been in demand to give lectures on the nature of Islam and Middle Eastern cultures.
“The past year witnessed great steps forward in Japanese understanding of Islam, that it is a very peaceful and humane religion,” said 66-year-old Higuchi, a Tokyo resident who converted to Islam after studying Arabic at his university.
“When I became a Muslim at the age of 24, people generally viewed Islam as a barbaric or superstitious religion from the least modernized area of the Earth,” he said.
While Japanese today are generally more sympathetic toward Muslims than in the past, they seem confused by the gap between what they hear as the teachings of Islam and the modern history of the Middle East, which has been marred by incessant warfare, he said.
“People still tend to explain all the warfare involving Muslims as being part of the nature of Islam,” he said. “But it has to be taken into account that this situation is the result of various social and historical problems, including the legacy of past colonial rule of the Middle East by European powers and the ethnic diversity of the region,” he said.
The Japan Muslim Association said the Muslim population in Japan is rising — it believes there are about 100,000 foreign Muslims in Japan and some 7,000 Japanese Muslims, including about 2,000 women who adopted the religion when they married non-Japanese Muslims. There are about 2,000 more Japanese Muslims than there were a decade ago, it said.
But Aquil of Otsuka Mosque voiced concern that this Japanese enthusiasm for Islam is temporary.
When the mosque tried to collect clothes and other items to be sent to war-torn Afghanistan last winter, it collected 45 containers of goods. A similar campaign this summer collected only two boxes.
“In our minds, (the retaliation for) Sept. 11 is still ongoing, because innocent Muslims are still being killed in Afghanistan and maybe in Iraq in the near future in the name of what the United States calls justice,” Aquil reckoned.
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