Chams Recount Pilgrimage to Islam’s Birthplace

Twenty Cham Muslims were greeted by throngs of family members at Phnom Penh Inter­national Airport Thursday afternoon as they returned from the hajj—a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam’s founding prophet, Mohammed, that all able Muslims try to make in their lifetimes.

Sop Ra, who identified himself as the group leader and the third deputy governor of Kompong Chhnang province, said the pilgrims had been invited by Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and the trip had been sponsored by the Saudi monarchy.

Sop Ra said he had already written the Saudi king to thank him for his hospitality. He said he was confident the Saudi monarchy would sponsor more Cham pilgrims in the future, as the trip is such an important mission for Muslims.

Sos Kamri, Cambodia’s top Muslim leader, or mufti, said last week that nearly 100 other Cam­bo­dians made this year’s hajj independently.

Sop Ra said that after being welcomed at the airport and settling into a hotel, the Cambodian pilgrims clipped their hair in a purifying ritual. Once inside and around Mecca they prayed and performed rituals steeped in Islamic lore for several days.

Upon leaving the holy places, the Cambodian pilgrims stoned the pillars representing Satan—a ritual often shown in news broadcasts of the hajj. Sop Ra happily reported that there were no in­juries from flying rocks, as there have been in the past, and said other highlights of the trip were visits to the Saudi king’s palace and Mohammed’s tomb.

In recent years there has been a large shift among the Cham toward Islamic fundamentalism.

Observers attribute this trend to foreign influences. Missionaries from the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia have visited Muslim schools and mosques around the country, teaching more orthodox practices than those traditionally adhered to by the Cham, many of whom for centuries had practiced magic and ancestor worship. Money from foreign Islamic governments and organizations has also been granted for facilities and scholarships in the Cham communities.

According to the US State Department, six percent of Cambodia’s 700,000 Chams have joined the ultra-orthodox Wahabi branch of Islam. Other Wahabi adherents include Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, which oppressively ruled Afghanistan until US-led forces dispersed the regime last year.

About 90 percent of the remaining Cham belong to the Shafi’i sect, an untold but large number of whom have been influenced by the Malaysian Dakwah missionaries. Dakwah is an orthodox movement that advocates asceticism and close emulation of Mohammed’s routines, including regular prayer and fasting.

Bjorn Blengsli, a Norwegian anthropologist who spent nine months living among the Cham in Tbong Khmum district in Kompong Cham province, has repeatedly emphasized that fundamentalism does not imply militancy.

“The branch of Osama bin Laden, that is a splinter branch of Wahabi,” he said late last year.

Ismael Osman, a Cham undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion, dismissed the notion of Cambodian Muslims becoming involved in terrorism. “[Terrorists] never helped us during the Pol Pot regime. Only Khmers help Khmers. How can we support them when we have never known them?” he said last week.

Nonetheless, even before October’s bombings in Bali, Indonesia, Southeast Asia was declared the new front in the war against terrorism by the US and its allies.

Muslim communities throughout the region have been closely monitored by concerned governments, including their own, and the US has launched outreach programs intended to counter the anti-US sentiment that appears to be flourishing as the administration of US President George W Bush prepares for a controversial war against Iraq.

Despite Cambodia’s reputation for lawlessness, most of the attention has gone to countries with larger Muslim populations. But here in Cambodia the US Embassy’s public affairs officer Heide Bronke has been meeting with Muslim leaders, seeking help to distribute posters and glossy booklets illustrating Islamic life in the US.

The booklet, titled “Muslim Life in America,” introduces itself as “an attempt to explore in words and images the extraordinary range and richness of the way American Muslims live. That point of cross-cultural commonality—the family—is where we begin.”

Among other stories, the booklet profiles a suburban Muslim family living outside of Washington, a Muslim community in the state of Massachusetts and Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen.

Looking to draw out parallels between Islam and the US, “Muslim Life in America” quotes Shahed Amanullah, an engineer living in the state of California, as saying, “American values are, by and large, very consistent with Islamic values, with a focus on family, faith, hard work, and an obligation to better self and society.”

Bronke said 1,000 English copies and 5,000 Khmer copies of the booklet will be distributed in mosques and communities around the country. It has already been translated into Arabic, Bahasa, Chinese and other languages, she said Sunday.

(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)

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