When I was at primary school, I made a good friend with a classmate named Sophal. With a Khmer name, not many students and teachers at school knew that Sophal was a Cham Muslim.
(Almost no Khmer names, like my friend's, indicate any religious identity. But, many Muslim Khmers and Chinese Cambodians chose to use Khmer names instead to avoid social discrimination and political persecution during the Khmer Rouge period and the later communist regime.)
Some 20 years later, I met my friend again. But he was not Sophal anymore.
He had changed his name to Ibrahim in conformity with his Muslim faith. Like Ibrahim, the Muslim Khmer community has been integrated into the world of Islam as Cambodia was opened up in the early 1990s, following decades of self-imposed isolation.
While the Khmer Muslims have reached out to the rest of the world, it has come with both good opportunities and the fear of radical Islamic indoctrination by Islamic extremist groups.
As Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand and Sri Lanka have engaged in bloody conflicts, and the Islamic militants have attacked Mumbai and elsewhere, it has shone a spotlight on Cambodian Muslims and how they can protect themselves from radical Islam.
Fortunately, Cambodian Buddhists and Khmer Muslims seemed to have gotten along well with each other. Over the past centuries, both Khmers and Chams have rejoiced together and suffered together. This harmonious relationship can be attributed to the common history of both ethnicities.
However, the religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims in the region can also expand across the borders into Cambodia. As they were opened up to the world of Islam, extremist Islamic groups can spoil the harmonious and peaceful co-existence of Khmers and Chams.
Nevertheless, we believe that our Muslim brothers and sisters have only brought with them the good and progressive Islamic faiths from different Muslim communities throughout the world.
Like the case between me and my friend, Sophal or Ibrahim, we have remained good friends as a Buddhist and a Muslim.
We hope that other Muslim Khmers will also continue to maintain their good friendship and solidarity with their Buddhist Khmer compatriots and protect themselves from Islamic extremism.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh
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