The recent arrests and deportations of foreign Muslim teachers make it more important
than ever to take a closer look at Cambodia's Muslim population. The Koran emphasizes
that war must be only for the defense of one's homeland, and prominent members of
the Muslim society both from the provinces and in Phnom Penh have on several occasions
condemned terrorist activities and proclaimed Cambodia safe.
Ahmad Yahya, one of the most prominent Muslims in the country, told the New York
Times last year that he could guarantee this on behalf of his people, but not on
behalf of the Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Pakistanis and Saudis living in Cambodia.
Cambodia's religious puritans are in opposition to the majority Cham for many reasons.
One of these is the close ties between the Cham leadership and the ruling Cambodian
People's Party (CPP). The mufti, Okhna Sos Kamry, is time and again criticized for
his close ties to the ruling party, and many Cham want the next mufti to be politically
During the civil war which lead to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, the Cham community
split into different groups: there were anti-communist Muslims, and there were Muslims
who joined the revolutionaries.
Even though Muslim traditions were prohibited in the communist-controlled areas by
1974, the communists had Muslims who continued to work for them, especially in the
east (Eastern Zone). The most prominent communist Muslim was Mat Ly, vice president
of the National Assembly in Democratic Kampuchea.
He was one of the Eastern Zone cadres who defected to Vietnam, and when the People's
Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was set up he was intended to demonstrate the religious
tolerance and inclusiveness of the new regime. At that time the PRK regime replaced
the Mufti, and took direct control of the village Hakems. Today this practice reflects
the political loyalty among the Muslims. The Mufti, who was reinstated after the
PRK regime, is also a CPP member like most of the Imams and village Hakems (those
appointed by the Mufti to supervise religious practice in the village).
The Muslim hierarchy of today is a remnant from the PRK years and it has not changed
much. During the election campaign before the local elections in 2002, there were
several occasions where it was difficult to notice any difference between the local
CPP hierarchy and the religious leadership.
Inside the Muslim communities however there are signs that tensions are rising. Puritan
Muslim movements question the strong ties between Muslims and the ruling CPP party,
and the heterodox and syncretic or creolized religious practices are seen as deviations
from the pure religion.
Communities in transition
Syncretism refers to the synthesis of religious forms, e.g. where two different
religious or ritual phenomena interact or combine. In Cambodia some Muslims have
cultural traits that probably are pre-Islamic, and this is a cause of concern among
the reformist movements operating inside the country. In Cambodia, like in the rest
of Southeast Asia, religious activists from the Arab world are arriving with a new
view on religion and they preach an austere Wahhabiyya version of Islam.
The Cham have been able to amalgamate different religious cultures, pre-Islamic and
Islamic. In the rest of Southeast Asia we can observe the same adaptation and adoption
of different cultural traditions. Possibly because of this, Islam in Southeast Asia
has been more receptive to the view that Islamic doctrine and scientific discovery
are not conflicting but complementary forms of belief.
Among the Cham, and especially among the Jahed (ethnic Cham who practice an extreme
heterodox form of Islam), the religious synthesis can be seen as resistance to cultural
dominance, or as a link to lost history. Among the majority Cham who belong to the
Shafi'iyya branch, they have lost many of their former syncretic practices, but traditional
medicine, which often includes the use of magic, is still widely practiced.
It is possible to find traditions regarding the use of magic in individual sections
of the Koran, e.g. the first chapter, Surat al-fatiha, is not only seen as an essential
element of ritual prayer, but also the greatest of all the Suras, the recitation
of which is recorded as curing the bite of a scorpion. This implies that syncretism
has nothing to do with peripheral Muslim societies, but is omnipresent in Islam.
The scripturalist movements want to distinguish between religion and magic, while
the traditionalists experience this as one and the same thing. Magic has for ages
been part of Cham culture and it is used daily in the villages. To use magic is common
sense, and if religion is an extension of common sense, making sense out of experience,
magic and religion have fused.
In Cambodia however, more and more Muslims are joining the new scripturalist movements.
More money from overseas opens opportunities like studying abroad and/or accomplishing
the Haj. These people return with views on the religion which oppose the localized
Arab charities like the Om Al Qura Charity Organization and the Revival of Islamic
Heritage Society (RIHS) are currently setting up puritanical schools and mosques
around the country. At the same time an increasing number of Cambodian Muslims are
traveling abroad for the Haj or to undertake religious and secular education.
Many are tempted by economic offers from the puritans, and some Hakems even get paid
with funds from overseas. Puritan movements are not entirely new in Cambodia though,
but there is no doubt that these days there are more orthodox strains of Islam in
the country than ever before.
These organizations want to purify Cham Islamic practice by getting rid of the many
influences from Buddhism. The scripturalist or puritanical reformist, i.e. the Wahhabiyya,
believe that Muslims have become weak because they have strayed from the original
The movement preaches a very orthodox Islam where they revere only the first three
generations of Islam. This has the consequence that they oppose any form of religious
synthesis. It implicates opposing traditional burial practice and commemoration practices
for the dead, wedding rituals with the use of the drum or other musical instruments,
and so on. By doing this the Wahhabiyya signal the coming of puritan Arabian Islam.
Increased puritan views
Inside the Cham communities the Jahed are criticized for holding on to ancient
Cham beliefs, and this triggers increased puritan views among the majority. The majority
on the other hand are criticized by the puritanical reformists for holding some of
the same beliefs as the Jahed. Many Cham elders accuse the 'missionaries' of creating
unwanted community dissension by criticizing Cham traditional practices.
The religious disagreements have been solved differently in the villages. Some mosques
have actually put up a blanket to separate adherents with divergent views. Other
mosques have two prayer leaders, and in some villages there now exist two mosques.
There is another purification movement in the country though: the Tablighi Jama'at
movement or the Da'wa Tabligh as it is called in Cambodia. This movement, which originated
in India, is one of the most influential grassroots Islamic movements of the twentieth
It is described as a reformed sufism, and is a reinvigorated form of Islamic orthodoxy.
The faithful are supposed to follow six principles and they thoroughly follow the
Prophet to the last detail; they dress like him by wearing long white robes and turbans,
they sleep on the floor on the right side with their cheek resting on the right hand
In some villages where the movement is strong they also have a group called kaum
mustoro (the veiled ones), where the women dress in black tent-like costumes which
cover them from head to foot, leaving only a slit open at the eyes. My own research
indicates at least three villages in Kampong Cham where women are so attired, a practice,
as far as I know, introduced since 1993.
According to the anthropologist Judith Nagata, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party used
to recruit Da'wa leaders to augment its national membership, and some Da'wa groups
are known to have begun to make pointed references to the need for Malaysia to move
towards some form of Islamic state, i.e. by banning western 'rock culture'. However
there are those who argue that the Da'wa movements take a neutral stance and actually
neutralize the politically active Islamic movements.
There is great disparity among Muslims regarding education. In Phnom Penh there
are today approximately 300 Muslims who attend Norton University. These youths probably
have more in common with their own age group in Kuala Lumpur than with Chams in T'bong
Khmum, Kampong Cham. Among these youths, traditional Muslim Cham customs are seen
as backward. Last year there were also 400 Shafi'iyya and 80 Wahhabiyya students
Muslims in the countryside often cannot compete with their Khmer counterparts at
school because they lack adequate language skills or do not have sufficient money.
As a consequence, parents tend to send their kids to schools in the south of Thailand
in Patani, or to Malaysia. They either borrow the 350,000 riel school fees or receive
funding from foreign sources to do so.
There are however more religious schools than ever in Cambodia, and one of these
is the currently closed school founded by the Om Al Qura Charity Organization. This
organization is, together with the Kuwaiti-supported Revival of Islamic Heritage
Society (RIHS), one of the two largest Wahhabiyya organizations in the country. Both
organizations have many teachers from Malaysia, Thailand and African and Arab nations.
Some of the teachers have previous experiences from northwest China where the Shafi'iyya
movement is strong. In early 2003 there were approximately 350 foreign teachers working
In most Muslim schools the kids learn the Koran by rote in Arabic, which very few
of them understand at this point in their lives. When they have learned sufficient
parts of the Koran they learn about its contents in Khmer or Malay.
Away from their local communities this learning is unopposed, while in the villages
which also have a modicum of Koranic teachings, these teachings are opposed by cultural
traits regarding most aspects of village life. The Muslim schools teach a purified
Islam which as a consequence purifies action by stripping it of non-rational ritual,
aesthetic, cosmological, and social structures.
The Wahhabiyya schools, like the one at the Islamic Center of Phnom Penh, are
not anti-modern. They preach a modernization which is opposed to westernization though,
and it is anti-syncretic and delocalized.
Research from other parts of Southeast Asia shows that in general returnees from
the Middle East are hard-liners in matters regarding local traditions. At the Islamic
Center of Phnom Penh, the religious education is comprehensive, but they also have
computer training and other secular activities. Most Cham view anyone coming from
the Muslim heartlands as more closely attuned to the core of Islam than themselves.
This gives the Muslim teachers, returned Hajis, returned students and the individual
proselytizers great influence.
Reformist or terrorist?
The recent arrests at one of Om Al Qura's schools highlight the potential terrorist
threat in the country. It is a possibility that foreign teachers for quite a while
could have been promoting Islamist views.
It is important however to notice that the recent growth in Madrassa schools in Cambodia
is a result of the need for religious and secular education which the current regime
has not been able to offer the Cham so far. The Madrassa schools offer the Cham children
free schooling which includes food, clothes and a place to stay. As long as these
schools are not part of the public school system, they will create their own curriculum.
Where the public school would be able to promote a multicultural Khmer society, the
Madrassa schools teach orthodox Islam. The teachers are foreigners from many countries
who probably have taught at several different boarding schools in the Muslim world.
Continued poverty and illiteracy among the Cham will likely allow for a flourishing
of Madrassa schools in the near future. It is possible that the current arrests are
a consequence of an unwanted aspect of globalization. In the long-run, increased
polarization of the Cham community has the potential to undermine Khmer-Cham relations,
which until now have been generally harmonious, especially in villages where Muslims
and Buddhists live side by side.
To avoid this, Khmer and Cham officials have to create equal opportunities for Cambodian
youths of all religions.
ï Bjørn Blengsli, a Norwegian anthropologist from the Norwegian University
of Science and Technology, recently spent ten months living in predominantly Cham
villages in Kampong Cham researching religious change among the Cham.