FIVE times a day, they fall to their knees, concentrated in prayer. Men in
sarongs, women with kramas hiding their hair, they appear normal Khmers. But
their simply ornamented mosques in this Buddhist land gives them away as
something different. Then a roar of "Allah Akbar!" (God is Great) splits the
silence, leaving no doubt.
The Cham community, now the second largest
ethnic minority in Cambodia with half a million people, have lived side by side
with Khmers for centuries.
They maintain a distinctive Muslim identity -
with their own God, prayers, mosques and language - while still mixing easily
into a predominantly Buddhist society.
Most Chams, or Khmer-Islam they
are locally known, are, like the Khmer population, rice farmers or fishing
But the Cham community includes MPs, civil servants, soldiers,
businesspeople and Prince Norodom Ranariddh's wife, Princess Marie, who counts
herself as half Cham and half Buddhist.
Cham villages dot the banks of
the Tonle Sap and the Mekong rivers, mostly in Kompong Cham and Kompong Chhnang
Mosques destroyed during Pol Pot's reign - Chams, like
Khmers, suffered terribly under the Khmer Rouge - are now being rebuilt. The
number of schools teaching the Cham language, and of Cham hospitals, are
A new International Mosque in Phnom Penh, much of its
$350,000 cost sponsored by Saudi Arabia, was inaugurated a few months ago as a
national focal point for Muslims.
While the Chams are by no means a vocal
and visible group in Cambodia, the obvious flourishing of their community and of
the spirit of Islam is not welcomed by all.
Says a Khmer student with a
disapproving shake of the head: "I don't understand why the government allows
the construction of new mosques. They [Chams] should obey to Buddhism. Cambodia
is a Buddhist country."
Says another: "The Chams are a minority. We
don't want so many mosques. Ranariddh follows what his wife
Cambodia's Chams, meanwhile, are a modest people who largely
eschew politics and power for the sake of continuing their everyday lives
peacefully beside Khmers. They are descendants of the former great kingdom of
Champa, which occupied much of the center and coastal areas of what is now
The heavily-Indianised Champa was at one stage perhaps the
stronger civilization in South-East Asia. At the height of its power in the late
12th Century it sacked ancient Cambodia when its fighters launched a successful
waterborne attack on Angkor in war canoes.
The Chams' power, however, was
waning by the 14th Century and the kingdom was eventually taken by
Most of Cambodia's Muslims are descendants of immigrants from
what is now Vietnam, though some are related to Pakistanis and Afghans. There
are some 500,000 Chams in Cambodia today, according to the Ministry of Cult and
Religion, compared to a mere 60,000 in Vietnam, where distinctive Cham temples
still dot the countryside in a reminder of the once-powerful Champa.
Khmer-Islam were profoundly influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism, but adhere
to Islam. They pray daily and observe the Ramadan month of fasting, but few in
Cambodia are fluent in Arabic, the language of the Koran.
cruel persecution under the Khmer Rouge which tried to raze their community off
the map. Estimated at 800,000 under King Norodom Sihanouk's rule, their
population had fallen to around 350,000 by the end of the Khmer Rouge's
"During Pol Pot, we were dispatched all over the country" recalls
Muhammad, 62, at the International Mosque.
"We have been tortured and we
have seen our relatives die. But we have never lost our culture."
Cham community has rejuvenated itself and is now as strong as it has ever been
since the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979.
Many Chams hold manual jobs
but some work in shops or are policemen or civil servants. There are only three
Cham companies in Cambodia. A Cham is a high-ranking Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces officer, and four Khmer-Islam are Members of Parliament.
Ahmad Yahya said at a recent seminar: "The Chams are second-class, we are very
poor. We don't want to interfere with other religions, especially with
Yahya said that Muslims were still indeed "people from the
"My name, Yahya, converts to John. We feel very proud that
Christianity and Islam is very close, we are one family," he said.
community maintains links with other Muslim countries, particularly Indonesia
and Malaysia, and a small number of Chams have visited Mecca in trips funded by
The Cambodian government has encouraged openness among
Chams, and the Ministry of Cults and Religion is responsible for encouraging
their education and development.
Cham Ismail Osman, Under-Secretary of
State at the Ministry of Cult and Religions in Phnom Penh, says the community
hopes to establish an Institute of Islam in Cambodia.
promised a donation of more than $500,000 dollars for the construction of the
institute and the son of Indonesian President Suharto has offered
The Khmer-Islamic Association, financially backed by a few
businessmen, holds little influence in Cambodia and most Chams are opposed to
the idea of seeking a greater share of power in line with their
A common comment from Chams is that they do not want to
become a "Muslim factor" in Cambodia, preferring to concentrate on their
religious and social activities. Most are reluctant to talk about
During the 1993 elections, the Chams fully supported both
Funcinpec and the Cambodian People's Party. Says Ismail Osman: "We are the
minority. We want to live peacefully with the Khmer Buddhist. We never tried and
will never try to have a firm grip on political issues."
Cham, Ismail Hassan, puts it: "There have been no outbreaks [of political
activism]. Our aspirations don't need a political foundation.
never been campaigning to break away from predominantly Buddhist Khmer. This is
a choice to leave peacefully among our neighbors".
The Chams' religion
shows little sign of preventing them from joining in Khmer society. Like Khmers,
expressions of faith typify these people and their religion is the key condition
for preserving their identity.