End of Ramadan in Taipei shows role of Islam in Taiwan's diplomacy

Taipei Grand Mosque. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Taiwan is a predominantly Buddhist and Taoist society yet it counts several religious minorities, including Muslims. According to various estimates there are about 250,000 Muslims on the island, thus representing around one percent of the total population.

Member of the Hui Chinese Muslim community. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Taiwan's Muslims are predominantly Sunni, and originate from different migration waves. Of the estimated 250,000, about 60,000 belong to the Chinese Muslim community, also known as Hui (回) in Chinese or as Dungan in Central Asia. The Hui are Chinese who converted to Islam as early as the seventh century and sometimes intermarried with Arab and Persian traders. Some of them moved from mainland China to Taiwan as the ethnic Chinese colonization started in the 17th century. Another wave moved after 1949 when the Kuomintang lost the civil war to the Communists and fled to the island, thereby imposing its rule over Taiwan. An estimated 20,000 Hui soldiers served in the Kuomintang army and eventually settled in Taiwan with their families. Finally, a third wave of Chinese Muslims who had relations with Taiwan and/or the Kuomintang moved from Thailand and Myanmar in the 1980s and created a small Muslim center in New Taipei City.

The vast majority of Taiwan's Muslims are migrant workers from Southeast Asia, mostly Indonesia and Malaysia. They do not have Taiwanese citizenship and typically come for only a few years, with women largely working as domestic, health, or hospitality workers and men finding employment in factories or on fishing boats. None of those countries recognize Taiwan officially as an independent state, but they maintain vibrant economic, tourism, and labor relations and have representative offices on the island.

A well-established presence 

A sign on the Taipei Grand Mosque. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Islam is present across Taiwan but perhaps more visible in Taipei, where the Grand Mosque is established and sits on the side of the Da'an Park (大安森林公園) — a major landmark in the center of the city. It was built in 1960 and has maintained special ties with Saudi Arabia. Its architect,  Yang Cho-cheng (楊卓成), also designed some of Taipei's most renowned landmark buildings, such as the Taipei Grand HotelChiang Kai-shek Memorial HallNational Theater and Concert Hall. 

The Chinese Muslim Association (中國回教協會), which keeps its reference to China in its name as it was established in 1938 in mainland China, plays a key role for local Muslims as the largest Islamic organization in the community. It also plays an indirect diplomatic role as it maintains relations and exchanges with Muslim nations that do not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country, yet engage with the island economically and religiously.

Members of the Hui Chinese Muslim community at the stand of Muslim women in Da'an Park, Taipei. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Eid al-Fitr: A celebration for Muslims and non-Muslims alike

Eid al-Fitr sign in Da'an Park on April 23. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

On Sunday, April 23, a public celebration to mark the end of Ramadan, known in Arabic as Eid al-Fitr (Holiday of breaking the fast), took place in Da'an Park. The event has been a yearly occurrence since 2016 with the support of the Taipei City government and other governmental departments. The celebration included small stands promoting food, drinks, clothes, and souvenirs from the Muslim world. It also provided information on Islam in general and its role in Taiwan, as well as leaflets and counseling to migrant workers — most of whom are from Indonesia.

The official ceremony also drew notable public figures, including Taipei's mayor Chiang Wan-an (Kuomintang party), and the heads of representative offices of Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The mayor insisted on the need to develop Muslim-friendly tourism, as tourists from such countries tend to travel in larger groups and have specific needs that could boost an industry that was severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to this The New Lens article:

In recent years, Taiwan has consistently been named one of the top non-Muslim country destinations in the MasterCard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI), and right at the top for travel safety.

A music performance followed, showing how non-Muslim Taiwanese also participate in the promotion of Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian culture. One local band, called TabRaqs, performed Egyptian and Turkish songs played on Middle-Eastern instruments, as can be seen on their Instagram account:

Whether it's the first time you listened to us,  or already know us, and to all the friends who came to support us, TabRaqs Middle East Drum Orchestra thanks you for coming to enjoy the show.

Hope to see you at the next one!  Sincerely, Captain Ethan 🤗

For a country that only has full diplomatic relations with 13 countries — none being a predominantly Muslim nation — Islam represents yet another vector of engagement and an opportunity to showcase Taiwan as a tolerant and democratic country.

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