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Charting a changing Cham

Charting a changing Cham

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He's survived attacks by armed cattle thieves and been accused of being a CIA spy, but his fascination with the Cham continues

Photo by: PHOTO SUPPLIED

Cham anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli.

Meet Bjorn blengsli

Cham anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli started his field research in 2001 while living in a village without toilets, electricity or running water. He has since been solicited by western embassies and research institutes across the globe, including the Washington DC-based National Bureau of Asian Research, whose interest in Cambodia’s Muslims spiked following September 11. Blengsi has written a chapter about Islamic education in Cambodia in an academic book about Muslims in Southeast Asia to be released in January 2009.

Why did you start your research?

I came to Cambodia because the country has always fascinated me and information about the country's Muslim society was scarce. That the Kingdom's Muslim community also arguably is one of the fastest-changing Muslim societies in the world and the fact that there weren't too many competitors around in 2001 was obviously important.

How did you start?

I came for my dissertation field work in July 2001 and almost immediately went to settle in a Muslim village in the countryside where I learned the Khmer language by participation and observation, and started conducting field work. And I've been here ever since then.

How has the Cham community changed?

Though the first reform movements came in the 1950s, I have focused my research on the rebuilding of Cambodia's Muslim society since the early 1990s. The post-Khmer Rouge society has been rebuilt almost exclusively with foreign money. This process was, and still is, highly competitive and has featured an unprecedented modernisation of the education system. There are two defining characteristics to this modernisation. On the one hand there is the growing consciousness on the part of Muslims that Islam is a coherent system of practices and beliefs, and on the other there is an increasing tendency to make those beliefs concrete by very specific codes of dress and behaviour. The Muslim establishment has realised that education systems have a direct role in giving rise to new social and political identities in the next generation. So, they see control of it as vital and try to promote certain religious ideologies in order to fulfill their strategic ends within the contemporary religious and secular discourses on the kingdom's Muslim society.

How have you collected information?

When I started, I occasionally used a Khmer assistant who came to my village once every three weeks. I did household interviews, participated in day-to-day life, discussed religious differences and basically wrote everything down in my diaries. My village occasionally had problems with cattle thieves and kidnappers. Most bandits used to be armed, but the villagers were not. I remember some scary episodes involving bandits with guns. After September 11, I got arrested and expelled from the village and the district. I was accused of being one of "60 identified CIA spies". A letter from the Ministry of Religion and a meeting with (then undersecretary of state) Zakaryya Adam and later (then undersecretary of state for cults and religions) Ismael Ousman got me out of it in the end. However, if we overlook the CIA episode, and a few incidents involving armed bandits attacking the village at night, I had a fantastic time.

How has your acceptance by the Cham community changed over the years?  

Initially I had some problems because I wanted to settle in the Jama'at Tabligh stronghold: Phum Trea, in Kampong Cham's Krouch Chhmar district. When they refused to have me I went to settle in Rokar Popram in the Tbaung Khmum district. I immediately felt welcome and as soon as I got used to no electricity, toilets, roads and running water, I had a great time. Since then I guess Muslims in most parts of the country got used to me, which does not necessarily indicate that they see me as their best friend.

What is the most important misunderstanding Khmers and Westerners have about Cambodian Muslims?  

Many Khmers consider Muslims threatening because they see their allegiance extending beyond Cambodia. For Khmers, the Muslims have a reputation as powerful magicians capable of making curses, etc, but more serious are current beliefs that Muslims want to give all the land east of the Mekong to the Vietnamese and that armed youth gangs wants an independent Muslim republic in Kampong Cham. The consequence is that they're seen as both a political threat and culturally different than the Khmer.  

Westerners and Khmers alike don't understand why Muslims here are changing. My research into the nature of religious change among Cambodian Muslims shows troubling trends, about both the spread of new religious beliefs and the political and social reorientation of many Cambodian Muslims, especially young people. My research, which has primarily focused on religious schools and foreign donors ,has shown that the education is turning more political when the students reach high school level. It is still too early to say if this will create tensions between the Muslim community and Khmer society, but regrettably it looks as though that may be the case.

What is the most important thing Cambodian Muslims don't understand about Khmer society?

The Muslim understanding of Cambodian society and religion is minimal and tells us that the ignorance of each others' religions is mutual. Their religion also prevents them from celebrating or recognising many Buddhist national holidays.  

However, a large minority of Muslims believe, rightly so, that their Khmer neighbors do not like them, that Khmers receive better education and that they would be discriminated against if they applied for the same job as Khmer. I am not claiming that I have found the solution for the path to social advancement, the topic is more complex than that, but secular education should be implemented in all Muslim schools. The secular education among Muslims is still low when compared to that of the Khmer, with Muslim girls most disadvantaged in their pursuit of secular education. Increased knowledge not only about the Khmer society, but also the different sects within Islam is also imperative. As many as 99 percent of Muslim religious students believe there is only one correct interpretation of their religion and this is extremely dangerous.

What areas have been most neglected by researchers?

The religious education systems needs to be further researched. Cambodia has several different religious education systems with distinctively different curricula. My research has found that much of the change in religious orientation, particularly the growing sympathy for fundamentalist understandings of the faith and terrorism, are related to Islamic schooling.

I have successfully uncovered relations between different types of religious schooling and conflicting religious interpretations and political attitudes.   The schools' religious content are closely linked to the type of religion practiced in the donor countries. Precise information is still missing on the role of these religious schools outside of Cambodia. It will be very difficult to predict the future shape and alignment of Muslim institutions in the country - to say nothing about the ability of the Cambodian state and foreign governments to respond to these changes in an informed manner, without proper information about what Cambodian Muslims learn abroad.

Are researchers of Cambodia's Muslim community conducting themselves responsibly?

There are some excellent researchers here. But I am concerned about reports of certain researchers who have pretended to convert to Islam in order to gain the confidence of Muslim informants.  Muslims consider such people hypocrites, or munafiq - one who is more dangerous to Muslims than the enemies of Islam.  I am afraid that this kind of devious behavior will negatively impact legitimate researchers in the future.

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