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Plum Blossom Card holder praises Taiwan as Muslim friendly

2019/06/25 19:23:13

Usman Iqbal (right)/Photo courtesy of Usman Iqbal

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

Thirty-three-year-old Usman Iqbal from Pakistan is one of the youngest professors at Taipei Medical University (TMU). He arrived in Taiwan from Pakistan to attend a master's program at TMU in 2010 and continued with a doctoral program in health informatics in 2012.

Iqbal now teaches at the university as an assistant professor as well as a health informatics researcher and project manager of several national and international health IT projects.

He has been a principal investigator on many national projects related to translational biomedical informatics, patient safety and artificial intelligence.

Over nearly a decade Iqbal has witnessed many changes in Taiwan, but as a Muslim, he pays particular attention to how the country treats Muslims.

"When I first got here, it was hard to tell if a food product contained pork or not, which made every meal full of surprises," he told CNA during a recent interview.

Over the years, thanks to Taiwan government's push for halal certification -- which identifies operators as serving food in compliance with Islamic dietary law -- to promote Taiwan as a Muslim-friendly nation, dining in the country has become far easier for Muslims, he noted.

Today, halal certificated food products are clearly labeled and one can find them at major hypermarket chain stores, he said.

Also, two new mosques have been built in Taiwan since Iqbal arrived, making it easier for Muslims to worship.

He told CNA he finds that authorities in Taiwan show great respect for Muslim worshipers, as when police put traffic controls in place during Mosque services.

"I think Taiwan is very friendly (toward Muslims), it is pretty good," he said.

Iqbal said he has noticed more tourists and visitors from Muslim countries in Taiwan over the years, an observation that seems to be backed up by official reports.

In the 2018 International Religious Freedom report released by the U.S. Department of State earlier this month, Taiwan is recognized for making "significant" progress in improving rights for Muslims.

The report cited the Taipei-based Chinese-Muslim Association as saying: "(the) authorities were making significant progress in improving rights for Muslims" such as increasing the number of restaurants and hotels that cater to Muslims' dietary requirements and establishing prayer rooms for them.

"The number of halal-certified restaurants and hotels increased from 120 to 160 during the year," the report said. "Local authorities in Taoyuan, Taichung, Yunlin, Chiayi, and Yilan held Eid al-Fitr commemorations. Authorities built new prayer rooms at train stations, libraries, and tourist destinations," the U.S. report said.

The Plum Blossom Card is awarded to foreigners in recognition of their special contribution to Taiwan and grants permanent residency in the country. It is one of the government's measures to retain top international talent in the country.

The program is aimed at uniquely qualified, skilled professionals. For those deemed worthy, there are no minimum residency or income requirements, and no filing fees, unlike other regular permanent residency programs offered in Taiwan.

Highly qualified foreign nationals who have made a contribution to Taiwan or those who have made an investment of at least US$200,000 in the country are eligible to apply for the Plum Blossom Card. Currently, the card is held by 90 foreign nationals in Taiwan, according to the NIA.

After being told of the program and that his expertise in the use of artificial intelligence in medicine meant he could qualify, Iqbal applied in July 2017.

He was told by the National Immigration Agency (NIA) he will receive the card in April 2019, the first Pakistani national to do so.

Aside from feeling Taiwan's friendliness toward Muslims, the professor said Taiwan's strong technology infrastructure allows him to continue to learn from the best in his field and conduct research in AI in medicine and medical informatics. It also makes him want to stay longer, and perhaps one day become a Taiwan citizen.

The NIA says applications by card holders for naturalization are processed four to five months quicker than those from other applicants.

Enditem/AW