Can a non-political movement be exploited by terrorists?
Muslim Ulema take a tea break during the three-day annual religious gathering of the Kingdom's Dakwah Tabligh movement in Trea village on April 20.
Seemingly oblivious to the overcrowded ferry, a pious looking Muslim says quietly:
"O Allah let it be auspicious for us. Let us enjoy the fruits of this village
Fervent believers press on, eager to get off the passage boat from Stung Treng town
on the Mekong 30 Kms upstream from the provincial capital of Kampong Cham. Their
destination is Trea village, Cambodia's largest Muslim settlement and the yearly
Jama'at Tabligh gathering which each year attracts more than 20,000 Tablighi adherents.
Kampong Cham is not only Cambodia's most densely populated province, it is also the
one where as many as 43 percent of the Kingdom's Muslims live. The province is the
site where Muslim rebellions of the past were ignited, and where today's new religious
sects battle the religions of old. It is probably also the place where Cambodia's
Muslim future will be decided.
Mainstream Sunni Shafi'i adherents, Tablighi missionaries, hardcore Wahhabi'is are
all present. Although they are seen as heretics by most Muslims, a small Ahmadi community
has built a mosque in neighboring Kratie province where they struggle to establish
themselves. As recently as 2006, the author could document villages where stick fights
and weapons had been used in fights between different Muslim groups mostly in Kampong
Cham, but also in other provinces. Usually the fights erupt in villages with large
Jama'at Tabligh and Salafi communities. They fight over which sect should be in charge
of Friday prayer, which sect the village religious leader, or hakem, should belong
to and so on. However, in the Trea village cluster, the Jama'at Tabligh seems to
be in control, even though a new Wahhabii mosque has recently been built.
Behavior and faith
Muslim girls, referred to as Kaum Mustora, attending religious instruction at the Trea school for girls.
On my way up from Kampong Cham to Stung Treng on April 20, 2007, I see packed minivans
and private cars and buses. From the Stung Treng ferry berth hundreds of pious looking
Muslims form a queue eager to cross the Mekong and attend the Tablighi gathering
in Trea village. Having successfully crossed it, I see impatient people waiting for
their turn to perform the ritual wash in the river. Some younger kids play around
and some even dare go for a swim. This ritual cleansing is a mandatory physical and
mental purification which Muslims call wudu. Today, however, they also have to "exhibit"
their faith through their best Muslim dress and be sure to use Arabic terms such
as akh (brother), Jazakallahu Khayran (May Allah reward you for the good) bismillah
(In the name of Allah), when they encounter visitors in the village.
Allahu Akbar resounds from the Trea mosque which is the largest in Cambodia. The
crisp call to prayer carries to the other side of the Mekong River. The euphoria
is palpable and people hurry up from the ferry berth to the village. The hill is
steep in the dry season and I breathe heavily when I enter Trea's main street. Enthusiastic
groups of respectable looking Muslims dressed in colorful cloaks and cotton buttons
with matching sarongs, hurry towards the praying area. All have prayer caps, and
some even carry their prayer mats on their heads to avoid the baking hot sun.
Just outside the mosque I sit down for a while. One of the few Khmer families in
the village has transformed their front yard into a small café where they
sell various refreshments. I can see that Trea's main street is transformed into
a large bustling market with make-shift coffee stalls and booths selling Muslim dresses,
noodles, coffee, cigarettes and other items.
Trea village is the Jama'at Tabligh headquarters in Cambodia. Tablighi headquarters
are called Markaz, but during the gathering the Markaz is considered the mosque and
its surrounding areas.
Inside the enclosed compound, Tabligh members organize communal meals for Muslims from overseas and Cambodia.
Ash-hadu ana Muhammad-rasulullah, the muezzin is in the middle of his second call
to prayer. I go for a stroll outside the mosque area, but I am met with hostility
and anger when I try to take pictures of some of the participants. I don't bother,
this is not something new in the Tablighi dominated Trea village where sometimes
the term kafir (a derogatory term used to describe an unbeliever) is used to describe
outsiders like me.
Though a non-violent movement, the Tablighis propagate an extremely literalist understanding
It may be described as narrow and literalistic, with a disdain for religious tolerance
and democracy. The Tablighis also see non-Muslims as "aberrant" and doomed
to eternal perdition in Hell.
Another reason why the Tablighis don't like outside interference is that they keep
their activities secret.
As a result they shun media attention and do not issue statements. This lack of transparency
means that little is known about the movement's structure.
As far as the author knows, the movement's leader Imam Suleiman Ibrahim hasn't agreed
to an interview since we met in Takeo at RCAF Colonel La Lay's house in 2004.
It looks as though the movement teaches people to exclude themselves from the rest
of Cambodian society, tells them that they don't fit in, that the modern world is
an aberration, an offense, in other words some form of blasphemy.
Praying, bayaan and niqab
A young Tabligh man gets ready for prayer.
The mosque area is temporarily enclosed. A huge cloth shields the praying and living
areas from non-participating delegates including visiting journalists, researchers
and the few Khmer families living close to the compound. The mosque area also includes
the Al Hida Yah School, which was the first post-1979 hafiz (recitation) school built
Unlike when smaller dakwah groups visit a village and have to invite people to listen
to their bayaan (sermons), this time the lectures are meticulously organized and
there are bayaans with both Cambodian and foreign speakers after morning and noon
prayers. However, it looks as though the foreign alims (sing. of ulama, i.e. Muslim
scholar) are more popular than Cambodians.
The mosque area is getting crowded and the muezzin continues in faultless Arabic:
Ash-hadu an la ilaha illallah". It is the last adhan (call for prayer), and
it tells the participants that they must get ready for congregation. Only men are
allowed to participate though I can see a few niqab dressed girls rushing home in
time for prayer. It is only the glimpse of colorful sarongs underneath the black
dresses that distinguish them from orthodox Muslim women in other parts of the world.
Their black niqab dresses leave only a slit open for their eyes. I find it quite
dramatic that a mechanism for modesty and an indication of sexual propriety, however
debatable, is not confined to the wardrobe of adult women. It is my belief that if
Muslim parents send their girls to school in a full niqab it has lost its spiritual
significance and instead become a marker of separate identity politics.
Of the more than 20,000 Muslims in attendance, around 200 foreign Muslim scholars
participate in the gathering. A policeman in charge of security tells me that 124
Muslim missionaries come from Thailand, 32 from Malaysia, five from Singapore, 18
from India, and unknown numbers from Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and so on.
The numbers I have are, however, unreliable official numbers, and there is a distinct
possibility that the numbers of both Cambodian and foreign participants are higher.
As a researcher and a kafir I am denied access to the main prayer and bayaan areas,
but after sharing some sweet coffee and indulging in a discussion with one visiting
Malay amir (group leader), he agrees to help me slip into the enclosed area where
the foreigners stay. My difficulties obtaining information, he explained, were that
most participants believed I was American and America is considered the enemy of
The amir told me that all Muslims should perform all daily prayers in the mosque
because a prayer with the congregation is granted a reward 27 times more than a prayer
performed alone, and all good Muslims should conduct missionary work 40 days each
year and three days each month and they should not forget Allah for a single moment.
I am told that the path to the afterlife is easy. That is, as long as I convert and
follow the only true way. If I choose to conduct dakwah (missionary work) 70,000
angels will see me off, and all of them will bless me with Allah's mercy.
When I enter the foreign compound I see several "debate" groups with names
like Thai Sunna, Saudi Jama'at and so on. I am being told that the Saudi's, even
though they disagree with the Tablighis on several topics, do support them with money.
However, the biggest funders of the Dakwah Tabligh in Cambodia are, according to
my informants, sources from Pakistan.
Anyway, the conference rooms are all packed with eager participants who all are instructed
to keep silent while the alims speak. These alims indoctrinate the participants with
quotes from the Quran and Hadith, such as:
"When your children are seven years old, instruct them to perform the prayer,
but when they are ten years old, beat them to perform the prayer."
One of the participants suddenly stops, looks me in the eyes and asks;
"You are not a Jew, are you?"
Surprised, I tell him that I am not and I can see him relax.
"You see, amongst the Jews there are Zionists and they kill Muslims, but we,
my brother, we are allies against Shaytaan (Satan). Remember, in the beginning we
were all Muslims. However, some people forgot or started to practice religion the
wrong way. Our greatest enemy is culture, culture is infused with the tricks of Shaytaan
and it must be eradicated in order for us to practice a clean un-polluted religion."
Looking at the broader picture, today hundreds of Cambodian Muslims study abroad,
the majority in Thailand and Malaysia, but some other countries where Cambodians
also study include Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These students
belong to what I would like to call a new community. This community is based on a
personal, individual and voluntary adherence, and not to an inherited cultural legacy.
They are a product of a globalization within the Islamic community which ignores
cultural context and propagates individualization of faith, deculturalization and
deterritorialization. This globalization promotes a reconstructed identity based
on the homogenization of patterns of conduct. However, this mono-vocal Islam is not
necessarily agreed upon and when Saudi students learn that mixing of sexes, observing
birthdays (including Muhammad's), Mother's day, national holidays and so on is strictly
haram (forbidden) under Islamic law, students from Pakistani schools are taught orthodox
and fundamentalist dogmas from different school curricula. Nonetheless, they have
in common a strong critique of the traditional Cambodian Muslim belief systems.
Students from Trea are among those who go to Pakistan for advanced religious studies.
Schools include the Abu Bakar University in Karachi. This is the school where Rusman
Gunawan, the brother of the terrorist Hambali attended at the same time as the school
had Cambodian students. Cambodians have also been identified as students at one of
Pakistan's leading Deobandi schools, Jamia Binoria. The latter school is also located
in Karachi. According to the International Crisis Group, some teachers from the Jamia
Binoria school are associated with banned organizations such as Jaishe Mohammad and
Sipahe Sahaba. According to Michael Renner at the Worldwatch Institute (July 21,
2006), both of these groups are considered jihadi groups responsible for cross-border
violence in Jammu and Kashmir (the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir). They are both
banned by the Pakistani government.
Newly qualified or home on holiday, the students from Pakistan and India work as
translators for the Pakistani and Indian ulama at the gathering in Trea. Students
from other countries such as Egypt, southern Thailand, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia
either participate as translators, logisticians or conduct other necessary tasks.
Besides confirming the names and location of the schools they had attended or attend
at the moment, the students from Pakistan and India refuse to discuss other topics.
I am not taken aback; I often experience avoidance and what easily may be mistaken
as secretiveness when I speak with young Muslims educated abroad. However, even students
from Saudi Arabia are willing to sit down and talk about their journeys and who funded
them, the school compound and their living quarters, the school's curricula, and
the god fellowship with their fellow students.
International pundits seem to think that zealous Muslims are being recruited for
terrorist activities. Though criticized by many, Senior Fellow, Alex Alexiev at the
Center for Security Policy, wrote in the Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2005) that
Tablighi involvement in future terrorist activities at home and abroad is not a matter
of conjecture; it is a certainty. He also claimed that terrorists recruited new activists
at the Pakistani Tabligh headquarters which are located in Raiwind, near Lahore.
He is supported by French intelligence officials who have expressed fears that the
Jama'at Tabligh may be the antechamber of fundamentalism. Muslim scholars like the
Indian PhD Yoginder Sikand, strongly contest these accusations. He and other scholars
cannot deny, however, that Jama'at Tabligh propagates seclusion and not inclusion,
and that they teach a mono-vocal and fundamentalist version of Islam.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Cambodian Dakwah Tabligh movement wants to
advocate a good religion. But, in order to understand how the Dakwah Tabligh and
other so called fundamentalist or neo-fundament- alist groups envision Cambodian
Islam in the future, these groups should be looked into. Most of what is known about
their potential for extremist propagation comes from research conducted abroad. Maybe
the Cambodian branches of movements like Dakwah Tabligh are as peaceful and non-political
as some Muslim pundits say, but in order to know for sure we should at least learn
more about what the future religious educators are taught while they study abroad.
What I do know after almost three years of research in Islamic schools, is that Cambodian
Islam is indeed changing.
Norwegian anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli studied religion and epistemological change
among the Cham Muslims in Kampong Cham from 2001-2003. As an independent consultant
for the National Bureau of Asian Research, he studied Islamic radicalization and
Islamic education in Cambodia from 2004 to the end of 2006.
M. Blengsli can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org