Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NO GOD BUT GOD



Can a non-political movement be exploited by terrorists?

Muslim Ulema take a tea break during the three-day annual religious gathering of the Kingdom's Dakwah Tabligh movement in Trea village on April 20.

Seemingly oblivious to the overcrowded ferry, a pious looking Muslim says quietly:

"O Allah let it be auspicious for us. Let us enjoy the fruits of this village


Fervent believers press on, eager to get off the passage boat from Stung Treng town

on the Mekong 30 Kms upstream from the provincial capital of Kampong Cham. Their

destination is Trea village, Cambodia's largest Muslim settlement and the yearly

Jama'at Tabligh gathering which each year attracts more than 20,000 Tablighi adherents.

Kampong Cham is not only Cambodia's most densely populated province, it is also the

one where as many as 43 percent of the Kingdom's Muslims live. The province is the

site where Muslim rebellions of the past were ignited, and where today's new religious

sects battle the religions of old. It is probably also the place where Cambodia's

Muslim future will be decided.

Mainstream Sunni Shafi'i adherents, Tablighi missionaries, hardcore Wahhabi'is are

all present. Although they are seen as heretics by most Muslims, a small Ahmadi community

has built a mosque in neighboring Kratie province where they struggle to establish

themselves. As recently as 2006, the author could document villages where stick fights

and weapons had been used in fights between different Muslim groups mostly in Kampong

Cham, but also in other provinces. Usually the fights erupt in villages with large

Jama'at Tabligh and Salafi communities. They fight over which sect should be in charge

of Friday prayer, which sect the village religious leader, or hakem, should belong

to and so on. However, in the Trea village cluster, the Jama'at Tabligh seems to

be in control, even though a new Wahhabii mosque has recently been built.

Behavior and faith

Muslim girls, referred to as Kaum Mustora, attending religious instruction at the Trea school for girls.

On my way up from Kampong Cham to Stung Treng on April 20, 2007, I see packed minivans

and private cars and buses. From the Stung Treng ferry berth hundreds of pious looking

Muslims form a queue eager to cross the Mekong and attend the Tablighi gathering

in Trea village. Having successfully crossed it, I see impatient people waiting for

their turn to perform the ritual wash in the river. Some younger kids play around

and some even dare go for a swim. This ritual cleansing is a mandatory physical and

mental purification which Muslims call wudu. Today, however, they also have to "exhibit"

their faith through their best Muslim dress and be sure to use Arabic terms such

as akh (brother), Jazakallahu Khayran (May Allah reward you for the good) bismillah

(In the name of Allah), when they encounter visitors in the village.

Allahu Akbar resounds from the Trea mosque which is the largest in Cambodia. The

crisp call to prayer carries to the other side of the Mekong River. The euphoria

is palpable and people hurry up from the ferry berth to the village. The hill is

steep in the dry season and I breathe heavily when I enter Trea's main street. Enthusiastic

groups of respectable looking Muslims dressed in colorful cloaks and cotton buttons

with matching sarongs, hurry towards the praying area. All have prayer caps, and

some even carry their prayer mats on their heads to avoid the baking hot sun.

Just outside the mosque I sit down for a while. One of the few Khmer families in

the village has transformed their front yard into a small café where they

sell various refreshments. I can see that Trea's main street is transformed into

a large bustling market with make-shift coffee stalls and booths selling Muslim dresses,

noodles, coffee, cigarettes and other items.

The Markaz

Trea village is the Jama'at Tabligh headquarters in Cambodia. Tablighi headquarters

are called Markaz, but during the gathering the Markaz is considered the mosque and

its surrounding areas.

Inside the enclosed compound, Tabligh members organize communal meals for Muslims from overseas and Cambodia.

Ash-hadu ana Muhammad-rasulullah, the muezzin is in the middle of his second call

to prayer. I go for a stroll outside the mosque area, but I am met with hostility

and anger when I try to take pictures of some of the participants. I don't bother,

this is not something new in the Tablighi dominated Trea village where sometimes

the term kafir (a derogatory term used to describe an unbeliever) is used to describe

outsiders like me.

Though a non-violent movement, the Tablighis propagate an extremely literalist understanding

of Islam.

It may be described as narrow and literalistic, with a disdain for religious tolerance

and democracy. The Tablighis also see non-Muslims as "aberrant" and doomed

to eternal perdition in Hell.

Another reason why the Tablighis don't like outside interference is that they keep

their activities secret.

As a result they shun media attention and do not issue statements. This lack of transparency

means that little is known about the movement's structure.

As far as the author knows, the movement's leader Imam Suleiman Ibrahim hasn't agreed

to an interview since we met in Takeo at RCAF Colonel La Lay's house in 2004.

It looks as though the movement teaches people to exclude themselves from the rest

of Cambodian society, tells them that they don't fit in, that the modern world is

an aberration, an offense, in other words some form of blasphemy.

Praying, bayaan and niqab

A young Tabligh man gets ready for prayer.

The mosque area is temporarily enclosed. A huge cloth shields the praying and living

areas from non-participating delegates including visiting journalists, researchers

and the few Khmer families living close to the compound. The mosque area also includes

the Al Hida Yah School, which was the first post-1979 hafiz (recitation) school built

in Cambodia.

Unlike when smaller dakwah groups visit a village and have to invite people to listen

to their bayaan (sermons), this time the lectures are meticulously organized and

there are bayaans with both Cambodian and foreign speakers after morning and noon

prayers. However, it looks as though the foreign alims (sing. of ulama, i.e. Muslim

scholar) are more popular than Cambodians.

The mosque area is getting crowded and the muezzin continues in faultless Arabic:

Ash-hadu an la ilaha illallah". It is the last adhan (call for prayer), and

it tells the participants that they must get ready for congregation. Only men are

allowed to participate though I can see a few niqab dressed girls rushing home in

time for prayer. It is only the glimpse of colorful sarongs underneath the black

dresses that distinguish them from orthodox Muslim women in other parts of the world.

Their black niqab dresses leave only a slit open for their eyes. I find it quite

dramatic that a mechanism for modesty and an indication of sexual propriety, however

debatable, is not confined to the wardrobe of adult women. It is my belief that if

Muslim parents send their girls to school in a full niqab it has lost its spiritual

significance and instead become a marker of separate identity politics.

Foreign scholars

Of the more than 20,000 Muslims in attendance, around 200 foreign Muslim scholars

participate in the gathering. A policeman in charge of security tells me that 124

Muslim missionaries come from Thailand, 32 from Malaysia, five from Singapore, 18

from India, and unknown numbers from Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and so on.

The numbers I have are, however, unreliable official numbers, and there is a distinct

possibility that the numbers of both Cambodian and foreign participants are higher.

As a researcher and a kafir I am denied access to the main prayer and bayaan areas,

but after sharing some sweet coffee and indulging in a discussion with one visiting

Malay amir (group leader), he agrees to help me slip into the enclosed area where

the foreigners stay. My difficulties obtaining information, he explained, were that

most participants believed I was American and America is considered the enemy of


The amir told me that all Muslims should perform all daily prayers in the mosque

because a prayer with the congregation is granted a reward 27 times more than a prayer

performed alone, and all good Muslims should conduct missionary work 40 days each

year and three days each month and they should not forget Allah for a single moment.

I am told that the path to the afterlife is easy. That is, as long as I convert and

follow the only true way. If I choose to conduct dakwah (missionary work) 70,000

angels will see me off, and all of them will bless me with Allah's mercy.

When I enter the foreign compound I see several "debate" groups with names

like Thai Sunna, Saudi Jama'at and so on. I am being told that the Saudi's, even

though they disagree with the Tablighis on several topics, do support them with money.

However, the biggest funders of the Dakwah Tabligh in Cambodia are, according to

my informants, sources from Pakistan.

Anyway, the conference rooms are all packed with eager participants who all are instructed

to keep silent while the alims speak. These alims indoctrinate the participants with

quotes from the Quran and Hadith, such as:

"When your children are seven years old, instruct them to perform the prayer,

but when they are ten years old, beat them to perform the prayer."

One of the participants suddenly stops, looks me in the eyes and asks;

"You are not a Jew, are you?"

Surprised, I tell him that I am not and I can see him relax.

"You see, amongst the Jews there are Zionists and they kill Muslims, but we,

my brother, we are allies against Shaytaan (Satan). Remember, in the beginning we

were all Muslims. However, some people forgot or started to practice religion the

wrong way. Our greatest enemy is culture, culture is infused with the tricks of Shaytaan

and it must be eradicated in order for us to practice a clean un-polluted religion."

Globalized Islam

Looking at the broader picture, today hundreds of Cambodian Muslims study abroad,

the majority in Thailand and Malaysia, but some other countries where Cambodians

also study include Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These students

belong to what I would like to call a new community. This community is based on a

personal, individual and voluntary adherence, and not to an inherited cultural legacy.

They are a product of a globalization within the Islamic community which ignores

cultural context and propagates individualization of faith, deculturalization and

deterritorialization. This globalization promotes a reconstructed identity based

on the homogenization of patterns of conduct. However, this mono-vocal Islam is not

necessarily agreed upon and when Saudi students learn that mixing of sexes, observing

birthdays (including Muhammad's), Mother's day, national holidays and so on is strictly

haram (forbidden) under Islamic law, students from Pakistani schools are taught orthodox

and fundamentalist dogmas from different school curricula. Nonetheless, they have

in common a strong critique of the traditional Cambodian Muslim belief systems.

Students from Trea are among those who go to Pakistan for advanced religious studies.

Schools include the Abu Bakar University in Karachi. This is the school where Rusman

Gunawan, the brother of the terrorist Hambali attended at the same time as the school

had Cambodian students. Cambodians have also been identified as students at one of

Pakistan's leading Deobandi schools, Jamia Binoria. The latter school is also located

in Karachi. According to the International Crisis Group, some teachers from the Jamia

Binoria school are associated with banned organizations such as Jaishe Mohammad and

Sipahe Sahaba. According to Michael Renner at the Worldwatch Institute (July 21,

2006), both of these groups are considered jihadi groups responsible for cross-border

violence in Jammu and Kashmir (the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir). They are both

banned by the Pakistani government.

Newly qualified or home on holiday, the students from Pakistan and India work as

translators for the Pakistani and Indian ulama at the gathering in Trea. Students

from other countries such as Egypt, southern Thailand, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia

either participate as translators, logisticians or conduct other necessary tasks.

Besides confirming the names and location of the schools they had attended or attend

at the moment, the students from Pakistan and India refuse to discuss other topics.

I am not taken aback; I often experience avoidance and what easily may be mistaken

as secretiveness when I speak with young Muslims educated abroad. However, even students

from Saudi Arabia are willing to sit down and talk about their journeys and who funded

them, the school compound and their living quarters, the school's curricula, and

the god fellowship with their fellow students.

International pundits seem to think that zealous Muslims are being recruited for

terrorist activities. Though criticized by many, Senior Fellow, Alex Alexiev at the

Center for Security Policy, wrote in the Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2005) that

Tablighi involvement in future terrorist activities at home and abroad is not a matter

of conjecture; it is a certainty. He also claimed that terrorists recruited new activists

at the Pakistani Tabligh headquarters which are located in Raiwind, near Lahore.

He is supported by French intelligence officials who have expressed fears that the

Jama'at Tabligh may be the antechamber of fundamentalism. Muslim scholars like the

Indian PhD Yoginder Sikand, strongly contest these accusations. He and other scholars

cannot deny, however, that Jama'at Tabligh propagates seclusion and not inclusion,

and that they teach a mono-vocal and fundamentalist version of Islam.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Cambodian Dakwah Tabligh movement wants to

advocate a good religion. But, in order to understand how the Dakwah Tabligh and

other so called fundamentalist or neo-fundament- alist groups envision Cambodian

Islam in the future, these groups should be looked into. Most of what is known about

their potential for extremist propagation comes from research conducted abroad. Maybe

the Cambodian branches of movements like Dakwah Tabligh are as peaceful and non-political

as some Muslim pundits say, but in order to know for sure we should at least learn

more about what the future religious educators are taught while they study abroad.

What I do know after almost three years of research in Islamic schools, is that Cambodian

Islam is indeed changing.

Norwegian anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli studied religion and epistemological change

among the Cham Muslims in Kampong Cham from 2001-2003. As an independent consultant

for the National Bureau of Asian Research, he studied Islamic radicalization and

Islamic education in Cambodia from 2004 to the end of 2006.

M. Blengsli can be reached at: [email protected]


  • Joy as Koh Ker Temple registered by UNESCO

    Cambodia's Koh Ker Temple archaeological site has been officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. The ancient temple, also known as Lingapura or Chok Gargyar, is located in

  • Ream base allegations must end, urges official

    A senior government official urges an end to the allegations and suspicions surrounding the development of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, now that Prime Minister Hun Manet has addressed the issue on the floor of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78). Jean-Francois Tain, a geopolitical

  • Cambodia set to celebrate Koh Ker UNESCO listing

    To celebrate the inscription of the Koh Ker archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has appealed to pagodas and places of worship to celebrate the achievement by ringing bells, shaking rattles and banging gongs on September 20. Venerable

  • CP denied registration documents by ministry

    The Ministry of Interior will not reissue registration documents to the Candlelight Party (CP). Following a September 21 meeting between ministry secretary of state Bun Honn and CP representatives, the ministry cited the fact that there is no relevant law which would authorise it to do

  • Manet touches down in Beijing for high-level meetings

    Prime Minister Hun Manet arrived in Beijing on September 14 for his first official visit to China, where he is slated to attend the 20th China-ASEAN Expo and meet other leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Upon his arrival, Manet laid a wreath at the Monument

  • Cambodian diaspora laud Manet’s UN Assembly visit

    Members of the Cambodian diaspora are rallying in support of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s forthcoming visit to the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) in the US’ New York City this week. Their move is an apparent response to a recent call by self-exiled former