While many Cham Muslims have swung toward more orthodox forms of Islam in recent years, there so far is no significant evidence that Islamic fundamentalism in Cambodia suggests militancy or anti-Western sentiment.
“Mohammed didn’t instruct Muslims to commit acts of terrorism. Islam wants democracy and peace,” said Zakariya Abdullah, the director of an orthodox Islamic school, or madrassa, in Chumnik village, in Kompong Cham province’s Krochmar district. He said he has heard the name of Osama bin Laden, but he was not sure why.
Earlier this year, US intelligence officials, citing evidence of Muslims in the region cooperating with al-Qaida, named Southeast Asia as the new theater for the “war on terrorism.”
Most attention went to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—homes to much larger Islamic populations. But Cambodia, with its loose border controls and notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agents, also has been watched closely.
Six percent of Cambodia’s 700,000 Chams have joined the ultra-orthodox Wahabi branch of Islam in the past few years, according to the US State Department. Among their followers are Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, which until recently ruled oppressively over Afghanistan.
Ninety percent of the remaining Muslim population belong to the Shafi’i sect, and an untold but sizable number of them have been influenced by Dakwah missionaries from Malaysia. Dakwah is a fundamentalist evangelical movement that teaches asceticism and close emulation of the prophet Mohammed’s daily life.
Bjorn Blengsli, a Norwegian anthropologist who spent nine months living among the Cham in Tbong Khmum district in Kompong Cham province, estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of Cambodia’s Muslims are now fundamentalists.
“It is impossible [to know] how many Chams are orthodox,” he said. “But it is increasing.”
This would appear to make Cambodia an obvious foothold for organized terrorist activity. The US, British and Australian governments have recognized this, and, consequently, they have increased embassy security and urged their nationals to exercise caution..
Yet no threatening evidence has arisen, and Cham community leaders have vocally condemned violent jihad as contrary to the teachings of the Koran. Muslims in Phnom Penh mosques offered prayers for the victims of the Oct 12 Bali bombing, which the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiyah is widely suspected of orchestrating.
“A Muslim is not a terrorist because he’s a fundamentalist,” Blengsli said. “The branch of Osama bin Laden, that is a splinter branch of Wahabi.”
But he added that Islam in Cambodia is in a state of transition. The Koran is now edging out a centuries-old culture. Cham magic, traditional medicine, ancestor worship and its matriarchal family structure all go against Islamic teachings, and the younger generations are abandoning these traditions.
“I won’t say [Cham culture] is disappearing. It’s entering a new stage. A lot of them died in the Khmer Rouge, and this is about making a new identity,” Blengsli said. “I don’t know if the Cham are isolating themselves more or incorporating themselves more.”
“We have seen a closer adherence to the Koran’s teachings since the 1960s and 1990s,” said Zakryya Adam, a fundamentalist Muslim and undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion. “The people’s awareness has improved because villagers have better access to Islamic schools and communication with foreign guests.”
Madrassas funded mainly by Kuwaiti, Saudi Arabian or Malaysian groups have cropped up quickly over the past few years. Islamic teachers and missionaries, many of whom are followers of the Wahabi or Dakwah movements, have come, too.
Since the Sept 11 suicide attacks, television footage of young Afghan and Pakistani Islamic students—often young men waving weapons and shouting anti-US slogans—has given many non-Muslims the impression that madrassas are nothing but indoctrination camps for future terrorists.
Ali Sari, a Wahabi and the vice president of the Cambodian Islamic Development Council, dismissed that stereotype. “They never speak about politics, only religious study,” he said.
When asked about Wahabi’s violent adherents in al-Qaida and the Taliban, Ali Sari said, “I don’t believe they are all Islam.” He also dismissed the idea of southern Cambodia becoming part of a regional pan-Islamic state, as called for by militant Muslims.
Joudat Bilal is a Pakistani English teacher at one of the countries largest madrassas, which is home to about 700 Cham boys. “Muslims are crushed here. They don’t have valuable jobs. The purpose is to make them good and valuable Muslims,” he said. “They [Islamic teachers] say you should be a perfect Muslim. That’s it.”
Sos Kamri, Cambodia’s mufti, said Chams are worried about Islamic militancy and how it will affect their religion’s place in society. “I personally believe 100 percent that they will not join with the terrorists,” he said. “They have already suffered from war so long.”
A US Embassy official said Thursday that although the Chams now are integrated well into mainstream Cambodian culture, they should not be taken for granted.
He said the US Embassy has initiated outreach efforts with the Chams in order to learn their concerns and to make clear the concerns of the US.
“Our efforts suggest this outreach needs to continue,” the official said. “I certainly wouldn’t categorize them as a hotbed of unrest…. They’re still processing information [from the Cambodian and US governments and from foreign Islamic teachers].
The official also said that he had no information on foreign terrorist threats in Cambodia.