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Cambodia

By:
Seddik Taouti
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Cambodia

The modern state of Cambodia emerged from the ancient Angkor empire, which reached its peak from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. The empire went into decline because of attacks by the Thai and Cham from Vietnam. Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863 and gained full independence in 1953. The communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. An estimated 1.5 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and occupied it for ten years, resulting in thirteen years of civil war. Cambodian Muslims also faced persecution under the Marxist/Maoist Khmer Rouge regime; many were killed and many fled to Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Cambodian Muslim refugees from Thailand and Malaysia have since returned to the country. In 1991, the United Nations attempted to resolve the situation through the Paris Peace Accords. The U.N.–sponsored elections in 1993 brought the first coalition government to power; it ended in 1997 as a result of factional fighting. Elections in 1998 brought another coalition government and a semblance of stability. The inconclusive results of the 2003 elections led to a year of negotiations before a third coalition government was formed. Cambodia's embarking on the path of democracy opened up a freer religious environment in the country, allowing the religious communities to attend to their own developmental needs.

Cambodia has a total population of approximately 14 million. Khmer is the main ethnic group and Buddhism is the official state religion. Khmer Buddhists make up about 95 percent of the population.

The Cambodian Muslims are mainly rural people, the majority of whom are primarily engaged in fishing and farming activities. They number about 700,000 and include different ethnic groups. The majority of Cambodian Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic group, who migrated to Cambodia after the fall of the Champa kingdom following Vietnamese invasion in the fifteenth century. The Cham Muslim community is made up of two groups: the majority Cham Shariat, who follow mainstream Sunnī Shāfiʿi Islam, and the minority Cham Jahed, who practice a syncretistic form of Islam combined with ancient Cham Hindu culture and Ṣūfī traditions. Another Muslim group is the Cheavas or Jvas, who are of Indo-Malay origin. There are a minority of Khmer converts to Islam. There are also immigrant Muslims of Arab, Indian, and Afghanī descent.

Malay Islam has a significant influence on religious and intellectual aspects of Islam in Cambodia. Historically, the majority of Cambodian religious teachers and preachers have been trained in Kelantan, Malaysia, and Pattani in southern Thailand and look upon them as important centers of Islamic education. More recently, Cambodian Muslims also travel to Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia for religious education. A Saudi- and Kuwaiti-influenced Wahhābī form of Islam is spreading within Cambodia through the efforts of foreign educational and social service agencies.

The political changes effected through the 1993, 1998, and 2003 elections

brought about political and religious freedom, including the freedom to practice Islam. Muslims serve as members of the parliament, the armed forces, and the civil service. Cambodian Muslim politicians have participated in national politics by representing a variety of political parties.

Since 1994, a number of Muslim professional, educational, and cultural organizations have been established. A total of 220 mosques exist in Cambodia. In October 2001, the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs released a circular on “maintaining order in Islamic religion in the Kingdom of Cambodia” with the intention of imposing new restrictions on mosques and requiring the ministry 's approval for certain activities, especially those involving contact with Muslim foreigners. However, Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled the circular three days later, calling it contrary to the policy on freedom of religion. Muslim affairs at the national level are managed through the Islamic Affairs section of the Department of Minority Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs. In 1994, the state sponsored the formation of a national Muslim representative body called Majlis Sheikul Islam Cambodia.

Since 1995, Muslim organizations from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Indonesia, representing different Islamic trends and objectives, have engaged in the reconstruction of the Cambodian Muslim community. One form of assistance

was the sending of personnel and aid to serve the economic and educational needs of Cambodian Muslims, who were the victims of many years of war and destruction. Such religious schools offer only religious education, and they are staffed by foreign teachers who are unaware of local Islamic customs and culture in a multireligious country. On May 30, 2003, the Cambodian authorities arrested two Thais and an Egyptian on suspicion of having links with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) (Southeast Asian militant Islamic organization with links to al-Qaʿida and the Taliban). These persons were teachers at the Saudi-financed Islamic religious school named Umm al-Qurā. The two Thais were sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2004, and the Egyptian suspect was released.

On May 31, 2003, the Cambodian authorities ordered the expulsion of twenty-eight foreign teachers from the Umm al-Qurā school, along with their families, on charges of links with JI; they were from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen, and Egypt. The media reported that this action was taken on the basis of U.S. intelligence reports about associations between the Umm al-Qurā and JI. The most likely reason for this action, however, was the upcoming meetings of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) member countries in Phnom Penh the following month.

Each of the foreign Muslim groups represents a certain stance within Islamic religious thought, resulting in conflict among the different groups. In particular, it was alleged that many Saudi organizations, including Umm al-Qurā, were engaged in promoting Wahhabī Islam, leading to internal tensions and divisions within the local Cambodian Muslim community. Furthermore, the activities of Islamic movements such as the Tablīghī Jamāʿat and Umm al-Qurā in Cambodia were direct-ed toward removing the influences of communism, Buddhism, and Hinduism from the minds of the Cambodian Muslims, with the aim of spreading orthodox Wahhabism. Hence, the combined effect of 9/11, the Afghan war, and the activities of Umm al-Qurā provided grounds for the Cambodian government to take action against the Saudi-related institution. The International Religious Freedom Report 2002, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the United States Department of State, mentioned tensions among the various Muslim groups that received foreign financial support and the types of Islam that each of them promotes. It also reported that the Buddhists had expressed concerns about foreign financial assistance to the Cambodian Muslim community.

The current state of Islam in Cambodia must be understood in the aftermath of Khmer Rouge persecution, reconstruction of democracy, economic poverty, theological challenges to local Islam, and the demands of development.

See also ISLAM, subentry onISLAM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA AND THE PACIFIC; JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH; MALAYSIA; TABLIGHI JAMAAT; THAILAND; and WAHHABīYAH.

Bibliography

  • Bajunid, Omar Farouk. “The Reconstruction of Islam in Cambodia.” In An Empirical Survey of Muslim Network in Northeastern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, edited by Seiji Imanaga. Hiroshima, 1998.
  • Trankell, Ing-Britt, and Jan Ovesen. “Muslim Minorities in Cambodia.” In NIASnytt. Copenhagen, 2004. Available at: www.nias.ku.dk/nytt/2004_4/NIASnytt-screen.pdf. Accessed on, November 28, 2007.
  • Yusuf, Imtiyaz. “The Thai and Cambodian Muslims and the War on Terrorism.” In Asian Islam in the 21st Century. New York, 2007.
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