Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The face of Islam in a Buddhist land

The face of Islam in a Buddhist land

The face of Islam in a Buddhist land

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.

Chams suffered

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.

Cham MP

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

Saudi Arabia.

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.

Malaysia has

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."

As another

Cham, Ismail Hassan, puts it: "There have been no outbreaks [of political

activism]. Our aspirations don't need a political foundation.

"We have

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.


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