photos, Bjorn Blengsli
A young woman follower of the Muslim kaum mustora, or "the veiled ones," faith sits contemplatively in a schoolhouse in Kampong Chhnang province.
Members of Cambodia's 321,000-strong Muslim community say they find themselves increasingly
subjected to outside influence as mounting aid from Middle Eastern and Malaysian
donors is now generally earmarked for development, religious education and proselytizing.
Muslim leaders also report that in religious schools, Islamic thought is often presented
in a manner that ignores the rich diversity of opinion that has characterized Islamic
scholarship over the centuries.
State-sponsored Islamic education does not exist in Cambodia. Nevertheless, all 414
Muslim villages in the country have religious schools that teach religious induction
courses. Many of these schools use a basic textbook, called muqadimma, which is a
64-page book that covers a selection of Surahs (Quranic verses) including prayer
and ablution instructions. These schools are where children experience their society's
religious traditions for the first time. This tradition, however, is often a contemporary
interpretation and often a product of conflicting discourses within their local communities.
The Khmer Rouge killed most Muslim scholars and left the Muslim societies in Cambodia
in limbo. But soon after the fall of the regime, Cambodia's Muslims started the process
of redefining what makes them Muslims.
Neofundamentalism is not a structured movement, and the term includes both militant
and conservative groups. However, there are no signs of militancy in Cambodia where
increased globalization has led to the initial phase of a re-Islamization and acculturation
process. What some scholars are calling an "Islamic revival" is led by
neofundamentalist groups such as the Salafi/Wahhabi and the Dakwah Tabligh or Tablighi.
The Tablighi typically launch short-term campaigns led by teams of missionaries.
They avoid entanglement in politics, push for the closure of mixed-sex schools, prefer
not to interact with non-Muslims and promote the veiling of women.
In Cambodia, the Salafi/Wahhabi presence is a result of increased funding from the
Islamic Development Bank, the influence of the Muslim World League, (Rabitat al-alam
al-Islami) and organizations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that are funding a growing
number of religious schools in Cambodia. Awarding scholarships and pilgrimages to
Mecca is providing Cambodia with new Salafi/Wahhabi recruits.
Such neofundamentalist activity is seen by some as an attempt to keep Islam in step
with the modernization of Cambodian society.
In spite of the Tablighi's missionary work, the most important tool for religious
induction is the ongoing school development. Most of the new schools are madrasah,
and in a few instances Thai and Malaysian-style pondok schools that offer a more
advanced study of classical Islamic texts.
This religious propagation can be considered as a gradual altering of Cambodian Islam
- in order to make it useful as a political instrument.
Today there are 32 advanced religious schools (including the Salafi teacher-training
center in Phnom Penh) that teach a higher level of Islamic understanding than the
basic village Quran schools. In many of these so-called advanced schools, the Islamic
educators do not teach pluralistic views of Islam, and this may exacerbate internal
divisions in the Cambodian Muslim community. These schools are mostly funded by Cambodian
and foreign individuals, as well as large overseas organizations and groups.
Most of the schools deliberately ignore differences among various sects and schools
of legal interpretation of Islam. The schools teach a monovocal, reified "Islamic
Law" that lacks the flexibility of older styles of doctrine. This has caused
an overwhelming majority of the country's Muslim students to believe there is only
one correct interpretation of Islam, regardless of to which religious tenet they
This lack of exposure to alternative views may encourage Islamic integralism, undermine
critical thinking, and could leave students susceptible to Islamist ideology.
Only one of the current so-called advanced schools was established prior to the UNTAC
era and only three established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on
the US. Among these is the newly reopened Umm al-Qura school in Kandal province.
The school was closed in the aftermath of the arrests of suspected terrorists in
The school is now called Cambodian Islamic Center and is fronted by, among others,
the country's spiritual leader, Okhna Sos Kamry and Secretary of State for the Ministry
of Cults and Religions Zakaryya Adam. Kamry bears the title mufti and is the Muslim
equivalent to the Venerable Tep Vong, the country's leading Buddhist cleric.
For the moment, most of Cambodia's advanced religious schools teach a purely religious
curriculum. Young Muslims attend after they finish their secular education or after
public school classes. Most of these schools are run by an organization called Sjil
Meunaga Ugama Annikmah Al Islamiah (SMU). Its work in Cambodia was initiated by The
Charity Muslim Development of Cambodia.
SMU is supported by many of Cambodia's most prominent Muslims. It prepares students
for standardized Islamic tests necessary for advanced study at Islamic universities
in the Middle East. Before Cambodian students attend these programs, they must pass
a final exam after four years of religious coursework in Cambodia and continue for
two more years in Malaysia.
Post-September 11 and current rejuvenation
The period after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington was a difficult
time for Muslim development in Cambodia. Immediately after the strikes, the Ministry
of Cults and Religious Affairs placed restrictions on where and how Cambodian Muslims
could interact with foreigners, and what subjects they were allowed to preach during
Friday sermons. Three days later, Prime Minister Hun Sen nullified the document,
claiming it infringed upon the right to freedom of religion allowed the Muslims in
But the subsequent bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, and the terrorist trials
of December 2005, nearly paralyzed further Muslim development.
Nevertheless, during this period the Kuwait-sponsored Revival of Islamic Heritage
Society (RIHS) never stopped spreading their Salafi/Wahhabi message through their
network of madrasah schools. Nor did the ultra-orthodox Dakwah Tabligh movement stop
increasing their proselytizing groups, and throughout the post-9/11 period the SMU
network gradually educated more students in Islamic law and Quranic exegesis.
Extensive research conducted by myself and two assistants has revealed that 2006
has been the most productive year for Muslim development in Cambodia in more than
Middle Eastern propagation
Okhna Sos Kamry, Cambodia's Muslim spiritual leader or "mufti."
Research has shown that many Cambodian Muslim males have a better knowledge of Arabic
than Cham. It also indicated that their opinion of Middle Eastern countries, especially
Saudi Arabia, is favorable. This is good news for the Muslim Senator Vann Math, also
know as Math Marawan, who is a central figure in the current Muslim rejuvenation.
At the moment, Math is the biggest contributor to Islamic society in Cambodia. In
2006 and 2007 his Cambodia Islam Association will inaugurate nine new Muslim schools,
where religious teachers must have a bachelor's degree from Saudi Arabia. These schools
are all funded by the Islamic Development Bank. In addition, he has brokered a deal
with the Kuwait-based World Islamic Humanitarian Organization, which will build 40
new mosques and three new boarding schools based on the RIHS model.
Math is also a member of the Muslim World League supported by the Dakwah Council
of South East Asia and the Pacific. It is likely, but not yet confirmed, that he
will open a Muslim World League, or Rabitat, office in Phnom Penh.
Our research suggests that the Salafis/Wahhabis have outlasted their "post-terrorism"
trauma and are not only regaining, but increasing their former strength. With 13
new schools opening in 2006 and 2007, the Salafi/Wahhabi influence will dramatically
increase from the 34 percent of all Muslim schools in 2006, to 51 percent in the
next 18 months. All Salafi/Wahhabi schools offer both secular and religious education.
But there are more new players. The Libyan Islamic Call Society has established itself
in Cambodia through a local Muslim NGO and is presently sending Muslim students to
Libya. The group has also bought land intended for a large boarding school in Phnom
Penh's Prey Prah district. An example of increased Muslim activity is last year's
Hajj, when 1,174 Cambodian Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In Cambodia, present developments are apolitical and non-confrontational, but it
would be surprising if, in the future, politicization is avoided.
* Bjorn Blengsli is a Norwegian anthropologist and consultant for the National Bureau
of Asian Research. He has been researching the Muslim community in Cambodia since
by the numbers
- Muslim population: roughly 321,000.
- In Phnom Penh: roughly 24,000.
- Mosques in Cambodia: 244 (up to September 2005).
- Muslim villages : 417.
- Muslim schools per village: 3 to 7.
- Cambodians who made the Hajj in 2005: 1,174.
- Attendance at the April 2006, Tablighi meeting in Trea village, Chhraich Chhmao
district, Kampong Cham province: more than 20,000.
- Bjorn Blengsli