In the article “Cambodians Have Joined ISIL Militants in Iraq, Group Claims” (June 23, p 15) you quoted a statement made by the militants in a YouTube video clip. In the video, a fighter from Sunni Muslim militant organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claims their membership includes Cambodians, as well as Bangladeshis, Australians, and Iraqis.
The clip can be seen as propaganda to appeal for collaboration from Cambodian Muslims. Given the claim, it is important for a thorough investigation into the authenticity of the clip be carried out to avoid maligning Cambodian Muslims.
A few questions should be seriously considered about the clip and its implications. Why did the militants just appeal to Cambodian Muslims and other Muslims in the respective countries? Do Cambodian Muslims have enough grievances and motives to join ISIL militants? What is ISIL’s goal?
Since 1993, when liberal democracy was brought to Cambodia, the Cambodian Muslim community has been exposed to the world, especially to Muslim countries. The democratization and free market economy in Cambodia have made the community known to the outside world through its communication and exchange of ideas, information, and culture. Possibly, because of the exploitation of Cambodian Muslims in Cambodia, ISIL made its erratic appeal. To date, we haven’t heard of any active Cham Muslim militants/extremists in Cambodia or elsewhere, apart from a statement made by Thai officials claiming that Cham Muslim fighters are involved in the restive Southern region. But this accusation, too, was strongly rejected by Muslim leaders due to the lack of evidence to support it.
The statement made by ISIL is even more obscure than that of the Thai officials. First, the date and place of the video was unknown. Second, it is most likely that the militant group simply included Cambodians and others as an appeal to Muslims around the world to join their group.
These militants assume all young Muslims will be drawn to their message: “Life without jihad would be difficult.” However, the use of the term jihad is problematic in many Islamic societies and is interpreted differently by different Muslims. Jihad is divided into two: greater and smaller jihad. While greater jihad refers to spiritual struggle against ego and one’s sins to lead discipline and virtuous life, smaller jihad refers to physical struggle to fight against oppression and injustice and defend the religion from being attacked. The former is widely practiced by the Cambodian Muslim community. The latter has been used by a tiny proportion of Muslims in the Middle East and a few countries in Southeast Asia, mainly Southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, who have deep and highly politicized grievances against the central government. As for the majority of Cambodian Muslims, they simply perceive it as “struggle” to live a moral life.
According to Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the founder for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo and the Arab Organization for Human Rights, the goal of ISIL is to revive the Muslim Caliphate and create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria or elsewhere. This group, which has similar goals with other active Islamic militant groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaida, still has a sense of pride in the Muslim golden era, the time when the Muslim Caliphate ruled over some parts of the world from the Great Wall of China to Africa and Southern Europe.
This sense of pride has been intensified by grievances and motivated by opportunities. While an estimated 85 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are Sunni, primarily residing in the Gulf states, Africa, Europe, and Asia, the majority of Muslims in the Middle East are Shiite, living mainly in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon, and making up approximately 100 million. Sunni Muslims who live as a minority in these countries perceive Shiites as a threat resulting from geographical divides, sectarian conflicts, and social injustices. Motivated and indoctrinated by a handful of religious and political leaders and supported by a number of non-state actors in the Gulf states, a small number of them decided to take up arms to fight in order to create an Islamic state. Very often, a religious message such as “sahid” or “martyrdom,” which means dying in the name of religion is blessed by God in the hereafter, is used to motivate the group to fight.
Nothing could convince us to believe that any young Cambodian Muslims have joined this group because there aren’t any grievances against the government or others or real motives for them to carry such an act. Currently scattered in communities across the country, Muslims in Cambodia had common suffering with fellow Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and have contributed to rebuilding the nation after 1979. What is important for the community is to live in peace and harmony by not harming other people.
Farina So is the director at the Center for Ethnicity and Gender Studies at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh.