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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trends in the Islamic community

Trends in the Islamic community

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.

Political ties

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


Reformist movements
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

facing Mecca.

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.

Muslim education
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

studying abroad.

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 Cambodia.

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.

Anti-eastern reformists
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.



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