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A perspective from the Cham Muslim community

A perspective from the Cham Muslim community


Haji Yusuf, Deputy Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, Phnom Penh.

Haji Yusuf is Deputy Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Phnom Penh. Cham Muslims make

up the largest religious minority in Cambodia, with around 500,000 adherents. Robert

Carmichael and Lon Nara talk to him.

Can you give us some background on Cambodia's Cham Muslims - where the Chams originally

came from, and how Chams came to be the biggest minority in Cambodia?

The Cham Muslims are better known as the Champa people, who came from Champa [on

the southeast coast of Vietnam]. According to the Koran, Islam was first [transmitted

to the people] by Mohammed and came from the Arab world.

The Cambodian Cham Muslims were converted by Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims

as well as other light-skinned Muslims who came to the country in the time of our

ancestors. Before this, very few Chams were Muslim.

Can you tell us something about yourself: where you were born and raised, and what

motivated you to become a spiritual leader.

I was born on Chruy-Changvar Peninsula (in Phnom Penh) in 1941; my mother died three

years later. I remember aged four seeing Japanese soldiers riding a horse and cart

and wearing their caps. When I was ten my father remarried and moved to Kampong Cham

province. At that time I knew very little Khmer and not much of the Koran.

Because my family was very poor I did not have much time to study. Eight years after

going to Kampong Cham I returned to Chruy-Changvar. In 1972 I started work as a medical

assistant at the Pasteur Institute, after my brother helped me get a job there. I

worked there until 1975, but I remember wanting to quit during the war in 1973. The

French doctor asked me not to resign, because I had worked so hard.

At that time I was convinced Pol Pot could not enter the city because there were

many weapons stored on the peninsula. But the KR came in very easily because of the

political problems.

During the Khmer Rouge period I worked as a blacksmith. When they asked what my previous

job was, I told them I had been a fisherman. I told them that Islam was a religion

of praying for happiness, and that according to Islam, killing is sinful. Islam states

that even cutting down trees for no reason is sinful, but if you kill an animal and

give the meat to people, you will have merit in this life.

I was lucky to survive the Khmer Rouge time. I returned home after that and was appointed

as chief of my group, and then became village chief. Six months after the Khmer Rouge

left, I organized my people to set up this community and make it strong. We taught

them how to form a civilian militia and devised social programs for the village.

I also advised my people to start to farm the land rather than let it lie unused.

Because the villagers considered me a good and righteous man who does not lie, I

was offered the job of first imam at the mosque. I did not accept that offer, preferring

to be deputy imam instead. I felt that being first imam was a very senior position.

Cambodia is considered a more liberal society for free religious worship than several

other countries in the region, such as Vietnam. To what do you ascribe the differences,

and what other problems do Cham Muslims face here?

Since the end of the Khmer Rouge there has been widespread freedom of religious worship,

and this has improved continuously since UNTAC days, when for the sake of democracy

UNTAC set up international standard laws.

However, Cham Muslims do have certain problems. First we do not have enough schools

or places of worship; second, only a small number of intellectuals survived the Khmer

Rouge. Our fellow Chams in Canada, the US and New Zealand take pity on our circumstances

and send money to build schools and mosques, and money to help the poor and orphans.

Orphans are more prevalent in Cham society than in Khmer society as a whole.

What is your opinion on the social changes seen here since UNTAC came and left -

particularly changes such as increased prostitution and higher rates of HIV?

There was both political and religious progress following UNTAC's arrival, but the

change also affected Cham Muslims. Women now wear stylish skirts that expose their

legs, and others wear shirts that show off their breasts. This did not happen before

UNTAC came. My mother's generation wore long-sleeved shirts.

During UNTAC's time, many people from other poor countries came to Cambodia and transmitted

HIV throughout Cambodia. I do not refer any nationality in particular, but I know

that nowadays there are some Cham Muslims who are HIV-positive.

Islam states that a man is prohibited from having sex with any person other than

his wife, but some men do not abide by this. The person who holds fast to his religion

will not [get infected]. Government officials visit my mosque twice a month to train

the villagers on how to avoid HIV.

What is your opinion on problems in society such as corruption?

Corruption is a personal matter, and to my understanding the government tries its


Funding for mosques and schools has come in recent years from other Islamic states

that some say are repressive in their social attitudes. How much money has your mosque

received, and does it ever come with doctrinal conditions attached, such as the position

of women in society?

I know that Kuwait has given funding to some mosques to help teachers in schools

with an extra $20 a month each. Our community no longer receives money from any states.

We receive funding from Cham Muslims living abroad - from Indonesian and Malaysian

people. An American man in UNTAC gave $500 to help build our mosque. There were no

repressive conditions attached to the funding. These people help us with a pure mind.

How many mosques are there in Cambodia, and are services conducted in Arabic or Khmer?

I know that before the Khmer Rouge came to power there were more than 300 mosques

throughout Cambodia. There are more than that nowadays, and services are held in

Khmer, Arabic and Cham. Before prayers people would always wash their face and clean

their nose, then brush their teeth, but some people these days do not follow this

so strictly.

We follow Sunni Islam, which is not hostile to other people; rather it helps them.

If a Sunni man slaughters a cow he gives meat to other people living nearby regardless

of their religion. In my community we also give food to Buddhist monks living on

the peninsula and take them for free on the ferry across the river.

Staying with doctrine - some Islamic countries, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban,

and to an extent Saudi Arabia, have repressive policies towards women. What is the

position of women in Cham society?

Muslim women in Cambodia are not allowed to work hard like in the Khmer Rouge time,

but they can work as medical staff, cooks, and the like. I advise my people to do

whatever work they can find - if there is a job that a man can do, then it is a job

a woman can also do. However, their hair must not be displayed, for fear that it

might excite a man who is not her husband.

According to Muslim law, a woman is required to cover her face exposing only a space

for the eyes. This was what women had to do in the time of Mohammed. In Cambodia

a woman's face need not be covered - this helps her to see well and breathe properly.

We should not be so strict, because [a restrictive practice] is like a string - if

it is too tight, it will snap. We should be moderate.

Is there much inter-marriage between Chams and the majority Buddhist Khmer population,

and if not, is it discouraged?

Islam is an open and generous religion. If I have a son and he falls in love with

a woman from any other nationality, he can still get married to her. One of my sons-in-law

is a Chinese-Khmer who was Buddhist. When he came to live with my family, he converted

to Islam and learned the traditions. He also changed his name and agreed to abide

by Islam. However, in the past some Cambodian Buddhist men have found that they could

not convert to Islam- they missed their Buddhist faith, and so left their wives.

You have made the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Haj) - how many Chams have done so?

I came back from Mecca in June 1992, after spending 40 days there. There was a 22-strong

delegation, mostly men but with three women. Many Cham Muslims travel to Mecca. Each

year more than 100 Cham Muslims go on the pilgrimage.

Do you think Cambodia's Chams feel their first loyalty is to Islam or Cambodia?

In my opinion, the Cham Muslims love both their religion and their nation. We will

follow whatever legal instruction is given, as long as it falls within the Constitution.

However, we will not kill people. We are loyal to the authorities and also to our

religion. We enjoy the same rights as all Khmer - we can stand for election as MPs,

we can join the army, we can do everything.

The attack on Afghanistan has put Muslims in many countries in a difficult position:

while most were horrified at the terrorist acts in the US and agree that the US has

to defend itself, many are also concerned at the effect this will have on Afghanistan's

impoverished civilian population. What is the feeling among Cambodia's Muslims about

what is happening there now?

Cham Muslims regret the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the New York. It cost

thousands of Americans and other nationalities their lives. We also expressed our

condolences for the American people and other people who died in the attack. We strongly

oppose the attack.

We are also angry with those who commit terrorism, both overtly and covertly. According

to the Koran - and you can read it in English - Allah flatly prohibits bullying of

other people. Those who are bullied have to speak frankly of their anger and ask

[the perpetrators] to stop doing such things, because it is contradictory to our

religious edicts. The retaliatory attack by America is not wrong, because it was

done in self defense. No one could endure that terrorist attack [on the US] However,

using war to settle problems can damage the advantage.

The US should undertake a cold war rather than a hot war - as the saying goes: while

hot waters run shallow, cold waters run deep. The US can arrest anyone, but it should

use this in a cold way. For example: if we use the fire to burn something, it will

burn quickly. However, some cold elements - like ice - seem to get hot if you hold

them long enough.

If the US makes this a cold war, then in my opinion it could arrest the entire group.

But when it attacks in a hot war way, it risks the group separating and makes them

harder to capture. It is like catching a group of thieves. It is regrettable that

some bombs hit civilians, rather than landing on those who undertook the terrorist

acts. It would be very good if the US stopped its bombing now and started a cold

war instead.

Are there any signs of unhappiness or unrest among Cham Muslims?

Cham Muslims feel much pity for the civilian victims in Afghanistan and the US when

they see they have lost a parent, a wife, a husband, their children. There are victims

in both the United States and Afghanistan.

America can let the world live. It can do anything - the world is in its hands. We

are not angry with America, because thousands of their children died in the attacks.

We simply suggest that the US stops the war and is patient and acts with a cool head.

Afghanistan's children are no different to the children in America. Recently President

Bush appealed to American children to donate $1 each to help Afghan-istan's children,

so I think America is the father of the world. I repeat again that America should

stop the attacks and instead find a political solution.

What is your opinion of Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaida?

America is right in its quest for Osama bin Laden, but I am not sure if a court would

convict him for the killings. The US probably has enough evidence against Osama,

which is why they are bombing Afghanistan. I don't know whether Osama would be found

guilty or not - that would have to wait until a trial - but I imagine that he might

be involved.

Islam states that if Osama is a genuine Muslim, he cannot commit such a crime because

it is contradictory to the law - Mohammed prohibited such killing. For example: if

someone kills your family member and you are the head of the family, you can forgive

the killer. If you don't forgive them, you can ask for compensation.

Probably Osama bin Laden does not hold to Islamic law. However, what I have seen

of him in his appearances on TV makes me think he could not commit the terrorist

acts: I saw him holding an angkam [a string of wooden beads held in the hand] while


Every religion has angkam. According to Islam those holding angkam are always thinking

of God. Osama always holds it, which means he is thinking of God and how to persuade

his people to do good things - not to kill people. So he is apparently a very good

man, but I cannot sound out his mind.

Some Cham Muslims felt that the restrictive decree issued by the Ministry of Cults

and Religious Affairs, and subsequently struck down by Prime Minister Hun Sen, reminded

some Chams of their time under the Khmer Rouge. As one who lived through that period,

can you tell us how it affected you personally, and how Chams suffered in general?

During the Khmer Rouge time the Cham Muslims suffered worst of all. We were forbidden

to pray or follow our Islamic traditions and would be killed if we spoke our language.

They asked us to eat pork, which according to our religion we cannot do, and we were

killed if we refused. There was a lot of repression.

The KR also banned women from covering their heads and ordered them to cut their

hair short. The population of Cham Muslims was 800,000 [during the 1960s]; at a meeting

I attended recently I was told there are now 500,000. That means that half of our

people were killed.

We ate very little - only a few spoons of very watery porridge. We had no freedom

to speak, to eat, to live. They took away all these freedoms.

In the 1960s there was only one Cham Muslim politician - the undersecretary of state

in the Ministry of Cults and Religion. He was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Now there

are 20 Chams in the government and the National Assembly and others in the military.

In my mother's time those Cham Muslims who wanted to hold a ceremony or slaughter

a cow had to ask for permission from the authorities. Now we have a very good relationship

with the authorities; we can hold ceremonies or slaughter animals without informing

them, because we have democratic rights. We would like to express our thanks for

this to the Cambodian government.

Turning to role models for young Cham: what qualities are necessary in a good role

model for the younger generation?

There are many requirements. First we have to recognize clearly who God is. We consider

Allah to be our god. Mohammed was the messenger of Allah, and he delivered the message

to us and we have to follow that message.

Second, we have to pray five times a day. Third we have to observe Ramadan in order

to know how difficult life is for the poor. If we have money we have to think about

the poor to make our minds generous.

Fourth, excess jewelry and money should be given to the poor. Fifth, we must go on

the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the tomb of Mohammed and hold the traditional ceremonies.

There are many other requirements, such as learning how to make a living and not

relying on others. It is not a good thing to be a beggar in Islam.

Another necessity is to undertake a rightful, legal business. And learning to be

an erudite person, and show respect to your elders. All these are the requirements

that someone wanting to be a good role model should have in order to guide the younger


Finally, do you think that the West might come through the current events with a

better understanding of Islam - for example as a tolerant, inclusive religion, rather

than the views that have long colored Western attitudes?

Allah did not order Osama bin Laden to undertake terrorism. Allah did not conspire

with Osama bin Laden or order him to kill people, just like the killing of more than

one million Khmer people was not ordered by Buddha.

I understand that the West is not against Islam, but they can arrest anyone who commits

these acts without using weapons, as I said earlier about using a cold war. We can

arrest terrorists in a cold way.

I think that the West will not paint Islam in a bad light and that in the future

the West will understand Islam better. The West will learn that Islam is a good religion,

and that it is only individuals, not Islam, who commit terrorist acts.


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