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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - As Muslim community grows, so do Kingdom's ties to Arab states

As Muslim community grows, so do Kingdom's ties to Arab states

Over $700 million has been pledged to the nation over the last six

months by land-hungry Arab nations, raising concern that their rising

influence will radicalise Cambodian Muslims


Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah during a state visit this year.

IN the last six months, more than US$700

million has been pledged to the Kingdom by oil-rich Gulf states,

sparking concerns among Western diplomats that the vast investments

could be used not just to kick start the agricultural sector, but also

to radicalise Cambodia's small but increasingly significant Muslim


"There are some organisations here from the Middle East that are very

radical and that are very intolerant, and they are trying very hard to

change the attitude and the atmosphere of the Muslim population here in

Cambodia," said outgoing American Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli in his

farewell speech to reporters on August 25.

At a time when rising international commodity prices have given a new

imperative to food security and made food export more lucrative,

Cambodia, with its vast swaths of under-utilised farmland, is in a

strong position to form relationships with cash-loaded but nonarable

Arab nations.

In April, the emirate of Qatar said it would invest some $200 million in Cambodian farmland.

Last month, the Gulf state of Kuwait announced it would give Cambodia

more than $500 million in soft loans and revealed plans to establish an

embassy in Cambodia - which, were it to happen, would mark the first

embassy from an Arab nation to open in Phnom Penh.

"Kuwait, of course, is a very wealthy country, so in ways it could be

very helpful to Cambodia economically.... The one thing we all need to

be careful about is what the money is going to," Mussomeli said.

Cambodian Muslims are "very open and tolerant of other countries",

Mussomeli said, but he cautioned that as a very poor community they are

vulnerable to being manipulated by groups offering money who "are much

more rigid fundamentalists in their perspective and who certainly don't

like foreigners or other religions".

Islamic ties

The recent series of high-level state visits from Kuwait and Qatar represent the newest round of contact from Arab countries.


Beginning in the early 1990s, money from Malaysia

and the Middle East flowed into Cambodia's Muslim community, ostensibly

to rejuvenate a minority community that had been devastated by the

Khmer Rouge and needed to solidify its rightful place in Cambodian

society, Cambodian Muslim leaders say.


Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The primary focus of the most recent state visits have been trade. Yet

cultural ties are also at stake: Kuwait pledged some $5 million for

Cambodian Islamic institutions, including renovating the dilapidated

International Dubai Mosque near Boeung Kak lake.

Ahmad Yahya, a government adviser and president of the Cambodian

Islamic Development Association, told the Post on Monday that the new

facilities at the Boeung Kak mosque were necessary to accommodate the

steadily growing Muslim community.

He described the prospect the having Arab embassies in Cambodia as

being "symbolically very significant for our community here".

He added that the Muslim community in Cambodia "has just begun to grown

up" and pointed to a series of recent gestures by Prime Minister Hun

Sen as a sign that it is receiving the respect it deserves.

Within the last year, Hun Sen has called for a Muslim prayer room at

the international airport, instructed educators to allow Muslim girls

to wear a hijab in the classroom and granted Cham leaders an hour of

free airtime for Cham language broadcasts on public radio - all of

which Ahmad Yahya called a "big achievement for us". 

In response to concerns by Western countries - particularly the US -

over how the money will be used, he responded: "If the money goes to

individuals and NGOs and no one monitors it, then maybe you have reason

to be afraid; but the money is going to the Cambodian government, so

why worry about it?"

Domestic recognition

Sith Ybrahim, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Religion, said in

an August 28 interview with the Post that the good relationship Hun Sen

has maintained with the Cham community has encouraged Islamic countries

to give loans to Cambodia and that while "some countries like the USA

are unhappy that Cambodia is receiving money from Kuwait, it doesn't

affect the feelings of the Muslim people here".

"Some say the money can help make Cambodian Muslims radical, but it won't," he said.

Yet past cases have put an uncomfortable spotlight on Cambodia's Muslim

community. In May 2003, police raided the al-Mukara Islamic school.

Three foreign-born men as well as one Cambodian man and the Saudi

charity that ran the institution were charged with international

terrorism and accused of having links to Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, the

Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda most famous for the 2002 bombings

in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200.

It was later discovered that the head of JI, Riduan Isamuddin, had

spent almost a year laying low in Cambodia. Another serious scare came

in December 2003, when Thai Muslims living in Cambodia were arrested

for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on the US, British and

Australian embassies in Phnom Penh.

In the post-September 11 world, Western authorities have continually

raised concerns that Cambodia, with its record of poor law enforcement

and easy cross-border access, is a vulnerable site for money laundering

and purchasing arms, as well as other illicit activities that support


Cambodian Chams

Most of Cambodia's 320,000 Muslims, as estimated in 2006 by Cham

specialist, Norwegian Bjorn Blengsli, are ethnically Cham, whose

practices have traditionally been moderate. But Blengsli has noted a

rise of fundamentalism in the Cham community, in particular of

Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam originating from Saudi Arabia that

he said is now taught in more than half of the Cham community's

religious schools.

"Economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries will lead to more

funding for Islamic organisations in Cambodia and, since they are often

unhappy with the purity of Islam as it's practiced here, there will be

increasing Arab influence on local Muslim practices," Blengsli said.

The penetration of Islamic missionaries, as well as development and

educational organisations into Cambodia, is problematic because of the

isolation some of these groups encourage, said Alberto Perez, a Cham

researcher who is based in Phnom Penh.

"It's extremely difficult for new understanding of Islam brought from

the Middle East to find expression in politics and mainstream public

life [in Cambodia]," he said.

"The result is that greater Islamisation tends to result in greater

separation from Khmer society - a bubble within which they can put

Islam into social practice far away from Khmer influence." 

While Hun Sen has publicly stated that Muslims must be accepted as an

integral part of the country, Perez said many Khmers continue to

imagine Muslims as a foreign group and are "suspicious of their

intentions because of perceived connections between them and unwanted

foreign influences". 

But Sith Ybrahim feels that newly formed ties between Cambodia and

Islamic countries, as well as the growing presence of Cambodian Muslims

in high-ranking government positions, point to a clear trend: Islam has

found firm ground in Cambodia.

He added that Cham leaders want to eliminate the stigma in Cambodia

associated with their religion and rid them of the "shyness" they have

about their identity.


"I'm proud to be Muslim and so should be all Muslims here," he said.  



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