At noon today, Mohammad Ali Musad will place a cap over his close-cropped gray hair, unfurl a reed mat, kneel in the direction of the Muslim holy city of Mecca and offer prayers for some 200 people killed by a car-bomb in Bali, Indonesia, last weekend.
As the imam—spiritual leader —of the Norol Ehsan mosque in Russei Keo district, he will lead hundreds of other local Cham Muslims in their weekly prayers, which this week are dedicated to the victims of the Indonesian holiday island blast.
The massive car bomb targeted foreign tourists at a nightclub on the island, and is thought to be the work of radical Islamic elements in Southeast Asia who have forged close links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
Mohammad Ali Musad is one of Cambodia’s small minority of devout Muslims, and one of a group of people at this mosque on the outskirts of Phnom Penh who say they don’t recognize the principles of their religion in the bloody actions of al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.
“Islam does not allow them to do that,” said Mohammad Ali Musad, a dark, friendly faced man with several gold teeth who is one of the few Chams in Cambodia to have visited Mecca twice.
“Even though they are Muslims as we are, we do not support them,” he said.
“They are Muslim. But they use Islam to do the recent tragedy, to kill people, to build up turmoil in the world. We do not support them.”
In the year after the Sept 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and the US-led “war against terrorism,” security experts warned that Southeast Asia’s patch-work of militant Islamic groups had links with al-Qaida and were planning to shift the theater of its anti-Western campaign to the region.
US, British and Australian embassies and diplomatic posts either closed or increased security last month after an al-Qaida operative told US military interrogators that car-bomb attacks were planned against US interests in eight countries in the region.
The naming of Cambodia as one of the countries targeted led to the closure of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for over two weeks.
The car-bomb in Bali last Saturday night brought home to many the validity of last month’s intelligence report, and has left many diplomats and officials wondering if the same could happen here.
Though Cambodian officials have declared the country “100 percent” safe since the Bali explosion, police have been ordered to increase security at locations frequented by foreigners in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap town.
The bloodshed, wrought in the name of Islam, tarnishes all Muslims, and in Cambodia—where religious tension is non-existent—the activities of militants elsewhere could lead to suspicion falling over the country’s Cham minority, Mohammad Ali Musad said.
“What they do is not good for Muslims….We are concerned about that too. But we believe we have not done anything bad. So the [authorities] will find justice for us,” he said
Around 93 percent of Cambodia’s estimated 12 million population are Buddhist, while official figures put the Muslim population at some 200,000. A recent US State Department report, however, placed the figure as high as 700,000.
The majority of Muslims are ethnic Chams who live predominately in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers and coastal towns, particularly in Kampot province.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham population was devastated.
Historian Ben Kiernan, relying on the French census figure of 1936, estimated that the Cham population was reduced from 250,000 to 173,000 people during the Pol Pot regime.
In a recent book by researcher Ysa Osman, those figures were significantly changed to 700,000 Chams before the regime and only some 140,000 when Pol Pot was toppled in 1979.
Foreign assistance from overseas Muslims in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia have helped the Cambodian Cham community rebuild since 1979. Overseas Chams, now living in the US, France and Canada have also contributed heavily to the reconstruction.
After 1979, there were only 20 mosques in the country; there are now more than 150—most built since 1995 with money donated from overseas, said Mohammad Ali Musad.
Muslim teachers from the Middle East and Southeast Asia have also visited Cambodia and taught in the country’s mosques, but that teaching has not tried to influence or radicalize the Cham community, Mohammad Ali Musad said.
“There are some [teachers] from the Middle East but they come for religion only. I have never found any al-Qaida links…. I think there are no Cham people involved with al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden,” he said.
“If police investigate al-Qaida, please arrest them all.”
Rom Ly, 22, moved from Kompong Cham province to the Norol Ehsan mosque one year ago. With a grant from Kuwait, he is studying the Koran in Arabic.
Rom Ly said he too will pray for all those that died in last Saturday night’s attack, which he called an atrocity that has no support in Islamic teachings.
“It is not good when people use the name of Islam to carry out the slaughter. The reality of Islam is that it does not allow them do this,” Rom Ly said.
Opening the pages of a blue-colored, palm-sized Koran to show off the Arabic writing inside, Rom Ly says Muslims have the right to defend themselves.
“It does not mention anywhere in the Koran that you can kill people,” Rom Ly said.
“Muslims are for peace,” said Dol Lah, after finishing a short prayer at the Dubai Mosque near Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh. He agreed that prayers should be said for those who died, and fears that suspicion of militants may fall on all Muslims.
Cambodia’s Chams should be spared such doubt, said Dol Lah who—like hundreds of others—was a member of an all-Cham military division trained by US military experts to battle Cambodian communists in the early 1970s.
The Chams and the US have a shared history, Dol Lah said. But he added that the best solution to stopping Islamic extremism is to first bring peace between Palestine and Israel.