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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The propagation of Islam in Cambodia: dynamics of religious changeBy Bjorn Blengsli

The propagation of Islam in Cambodia: dynamics of religious changeBy Bjorn Blengsli

photos, Bjorn Blengsli

A young woman follower of the Muslim kaum mustora, or "the veiled ones," faith sits contemplatively in a schoolhouse in Kampong Chhnang province.

Members of Cambodia's 321,000-strong Muslim community say they find themselves increasingly

subjected to outside influence as mounting aid from Middle Eastern and Malaysian

donors is now generally earmarked for development, religious education and proselytizing.

Muslim leaders also report that in religious schools, Islamic thought is often presented

in a manner that ignores the rich diversity of opinion that has characterized Islamic

scholarship over the centuries.

State-sponsored Islamic education does not exist in Cambodia. Nevertheless, all 414

Muslim villages in the country have religious schools that teach religious induction

courses. Many of these schools use a basic textbook, called muqadimma, which is a

64-page book that covers a selection of Surahs (Quranic verses) including prayer

and ablution instructions. These schools are where children experience their society's

religious traditions for the first time. This tradition, however, is often a contemporary

interpretation and often a product of conflicting discourses within their local communities.

The Khmer Rouge killed most Muslim scholars and left the Muslim societies in Cambodia

in limbo. But soon after the fall of the regime, Cambodia's Muslims started the process

of redefining what makes them Muslims.


Neofundamentalism is not a structured movement, and the term includes both militant

and conservative groups. However, there are no signs of militancy in Cambodia where

increased globalization has led to the initial phase of a re-Islamization and acculturation

process. What some scholars are calling an "Islamic revival" is led by

neofundamentalist groups such as the Salafi/Wahhabi and the Dakwah Tabligh or Tablighi.

The Tablighi typically launch short-term campaigns led by teams of missionaries.

They avoid entanglement in politics, push for the closure of mixed-sex schools, prefer

not to interact with non-Muslims and promote the veiling of women.

In Cambodia, the Salafi/Wahhabi presence is a result of increased funding from the

Islamic Development Bank, the influence of the Muslim World League, (Rabitat al-alam

al-Islami) and organizations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that are funding a growing

number of religious schools in Cambodia. Awarding scholarships and pilgrimages to

Mecca is providing Cambodia with new Salafi/Wahhabi recruits.

Such neofundamentalist activity is seen by some as an attempt to keep Islam in step

with the modernization of Cambodian society.

In spite of the Tablighi's missionary work, the most important tool for religious

induction is the ongoing school development. Most of the new schools are madrasah,

and in a few instances Thai and Malaysian-style pondok schools that offer a more

advanced study of classical Islamic texts.

This religious propagation can be considered as a gradual altering of Cambodian Islam

- in order to make it useful as a political instrument.

Ignoring differences

Today there are 32 advanced religious schools (including the Salafi teacher-training

center in Phnom Penh) that teach a higher level of Islamic understanding than the

basic village Quran schools. In many of these so-called advanced schools, the Islamic

educators do not teach pluralistic views of Islam, and this may exacerbate internal

divisions in the Cambodian Muslim community. These schools are mostly funded by Cambodian

and foreign individuals, as well as large overseas organizations and groups.

Most of the schools deliberately ignore differences among various sects and schools

of legal interpretation of Islam. The schools teach a monovocal, reified "Islamic

Law" that lacks the flexibility of older styles of doctrine. This has caused

an overwhelming majority of the country's Muslim students to believe there is only

one correct interpretation of Islam, regardless of to which religious tenet they


This lack of exposure to alternative views may encourage Islamic integralism, undermine

critical thinking, and could leave students susceptible to Islamist ideology.

Post-UNTAC and

pre-September 11

Only one of the current so-called advanced schools was established prior to the UNTAC

era and only three established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on

the US. Among these is the newly reopened Umm al-Qura school in Kandal province.

The school was closed in the aftermath of the arrests of suspected terrorists in

May 2003.

The school is now called Cambodian Islamic Center and is fronted by, among others,

the country's spiritual leader, Okhna Sos Kamry and Secretary of State for the Ministry

of Cults and Religions Zakaryya Adam. Kamry bears the title mufti and is the Muslim

equivalent to the Venerable Tep Vong, the country's leading Buddhist cleric.

For the moment, most of Cambodia's advanced religious schools teach a purely religious

curriculum. Young Muslims attend after they finish their secular education or after

public school classes. Most of these schools are run by an organization called Sjil

Meunaga Ugama Annikmah Al Islamiah (SMU). Its work in Cambodia was initiated by The

Charity Muslim Development of Cambodia.

SMU is supported by many of Cambodia's most prominent Muslims. It prepares students

for standardized Islamic tests necessary for advanced study at Islamic universities

in the Middle East. Before Cambodian students attend these programs, they must pass

a final exam after four years of religious coursework in Cambodia and continue for

two more years in Malaysia.

Post-September 11 and current rejuvenation

The period after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington was a difficult

time for Muslim development in Cambodia. Immediately after the strikes, the Ministry

of Cults and Religious Affairs placed restrictions on where and how Cambodian Muslims

could interact with foreigners, and what subjects they were allowed to preach during

Friday sermons. Three days later, Prime Minister Hun Sen nullified the document,

claiming it infringed upon the right to freedom of religion allowed the Muslims in

the country.

But the subsequent bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, and the terrorist trials

of December 2005, nearly paralyzed further Muslim development.

Nevertheless, during this period the Kuwait-sponsored Revival of Islamic Heritage

Society (RIHS) never stopped spreading their Salafi/Wahhabi message through their

network of madrasah schools. Nor did the ultra-orthodox Dakwah Tabligh movement stop

increasing their proselytizing groups, and throughout the post-9/11 period the SMU

network gradually educated more students in Islamic law and Quranic exegesis.

Extensive research conducted by myself and two assistants has revealed that 2006

has been the most productive year for Muslim development in Cambodia in more than

a decade.

Middle Eastern propagation

Okhna Sos Kamry, Cambodia's Muslim spiritual leader or "mufti."

Research has shown that many Cambodian Muslim males have a better knowledge of Arabic

than Cham. It also indicated that their opinion of Middle Eastern countries, especially

Saudi Arabia, is favorable. This is good news for the Muslim Senator Vann Math, also

know as Math Marawan, who is a central figure in the current Muslim rejuvenation.

At the moment, Math is the biggest contributor to Islamic society in Cambodia. In

2006 and 2007 his Cambodia Islam Association will inaugurate nine new Muslim schools,

where religious teachers must have a bachelor's degree from Saudi Arabia. These schools

are all funded by the Islamic Development Bank. In addition, he has brokered a deal

with the Kuwait-based World Islamic Humanitarian Organization, which will build 40

new mosques and three new boarding schools based on the RIHS model.

Math is also a member of the Muslim World League supported by the Dakwah Council

of South East Asia and the Pacific. It is likely, but not yet confirmed, that he

will open a Muslim World League, or Rabitat, office in Phnom Penh.

Increased transnationalism

Our research suggests that the Salafis/Wahhabis have outlasted their "post-terrorism"

trauma and are not only regaining, but increasing their former strength. With 13

new schools opening in 2006 and 2007, the Salafi/Wahhabi influence will dramatically

increase from the 34 percent of all Muslim schools in 2006, to 51 percent in the

next 18 months. All Salafi/Wahhabi schools offer both secular and religious education.

But there are more new players. The Libyan Islamic Call Society has established itself

in Cambodia through a local Muslim NGO and is presently sending Muslim students to

Libya. The group has also bought land intended for a large boarding school in Phnom

Penh's Prey Prah district. An example of increased Muslim activity is last year's

Hajj, when 1,174 Cambodian Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In Cambodia, present developments are apolitical and non-confrontational, but it

would be surprising if, in the future, politicization is avoided.

* Bjorn Blengsli is a Norwegian anthropologist and consultant for the National Bureau

of Asian Research. He has been researching the Muslim community in Cambodia since


Cambodia's Muslims

by the numbers

  • Muslim population: roughly 321,000.
  • In Phnom Penh: roughly 24,000.
  • Mosques in Cambodia: 244 (up to September 2005).
  • Muslim villages : 417.
  • Muslim schools per village: 3 to 7.
  • Cambodians who made the Hajj in 2005: 1,174.
  • Attendance at the April 2006, Tablighi meeting in Trea village, Chhraich Chhmao

    district, Kampong Cham province: more than 20,000.

- Bjorn Blengsli



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