Islamic Cambodians Stand Behind the US

Cambodia’s ethnic Cham Mus­lims are supportive of US plans to fight international terrorism, but there is some concern that such a campaign could unfairly target followers of Islam, several Cham leaders said.

Unlike some Muslim followers in other Southeast Asian nations, Cambodia’s half-million Chams would not protest US-led military actions against the terrorists believed to be responsible for the Sept 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Ismael Osman, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs, told US embassy officials in a meeting Tuesday.

“We both need to find a way to explain to Cambodian Islamic people so that they understand that the US is only against international terrorism organizations, not followers of the Islamic religion,” said Ismael Osman, who is also a Cham Muslim.

The Sept 11 attacks killed approximately 6,000 people. The US believes the terrorist organization al-Qaida, led by Saudi Arabian-born Osama bin Laden and based in Afghanistan, is responsible.

Potential US military action against al-Qaida and Taliban-led Afghan­istan—both of which attract followers of an extreme form of Islam—has sparked fears worldwide that peaceful followers of Islam will be caught in the crossfire.

The US government has gone to lengths to show that a military campaign would be against terrorists, not Islam. Last month, US President George W Bush visited a mosque in Washington to publicly demonstrate this point.

Ahmad Yahya, an ethnic Cham who is secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said he worries that the attacks on the US have created a bad image of followers of Islam.

“But this issue should not be connected to Cambodian Islamic people,” he said. “If the US fights, they will fight in Afghanistan, not in Cambodia.”

Cambodian Chams are des­cended from members of the former Champa empire, which was founded along the southeastern coast of present day Vietnam about 2,000 years ago.

Parliamentarian Osman Has­san, who is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s special envoy to the Cham community, said Chams have a duty to join the religion when they turn 16.

Many attend schools and mosques that have been built in recent years with funding from Mus­lims in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Math Sash, a fishermen from Chroy Changva commune, said he has listened to the news on the radio every day since Sept 11. He said he is concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan Muslim refugees who fear US attacks.

“I do not want to lose my religion, like we did during the Khmer Rouge regime. We do not want to see war,” he said.


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