The Muslim Cham in CambodiaNovember 16, 2015
Walking briskly down a dusty, pock-marked street off of Monivong Boulevard, Smay Manira turns her chestnut head just slightly enough for the casual observer to see a thin smile set in the middle of a face covered by a bright yellow hijab. It’s nearly dusk, the bright red orb in the western sky slowly descending over Boeung Kak lake–a picturesque sunset had the lake actually been filled with water. The adhan atop one of the two minarets of the Al-Serkal Mosque is calling Muslims to prayer and Manira, kneeling at the end of a perfectly straight line of fellow female worshippers inside after washing her feet, is grateful.
“Cham are allowed to pray in Cambodia without fear [of persecution],” say Manira, a student studying a for a master’s degree in English at a university in Phnom Penh. “All of my grandparents were killed by Pol Pot just for being Cham.”
Cambodia is a Buddhist country but had an estimated 236,000 Muslims in 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. Moreover, there are 520 mosques dotted around the country. The majority of Muslims in Cambodia are ethnic Cham, but not all Cham are Muslims; in Vietnam, the Cham are predominantly Hindu. The size of the total Cham population in the 12th century was rather impressive, but through a mixture of military defeats, inter-ethnic marriages, and cultural assimilation, their numbers dwindled to an estimated 400,000 today.
The phenomenon of religious extremism has been a ubiquitous part of myriad societies for centuries and even millenniums.Today, Buddhists lynch mobs in Burma attack Rohingya Muslims with phlegmatic normalcy, the Islamic State lops off heads of anyone and everyone in their way in Iraq and Syria, and this is to say nothing of the recent resurgence in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, nor of the horrific attacks which happened in Paris over the weekend.
The research question being explored here is why has Cambodia, a country with as violent and tragic a past as anywhere in the world, so far escaped the type of religious violence which is currently being waged in places that had hitherto been much more stable? According to Manira, as well as government officials, the reason is because of Cambodia’s religious tolerance.
“We see the world, in some countries religion has broken the nation,” the Prime Minister explained at the Al-Serkal Mosque’s inauguration earlier this year, as quoted in an article in the Cambodia Daily. “But for Cambodia, I can proudly say that we have lived together peacefully among races and religions.”
Cham are also given the right to vote and to stand for election in Cambodia. This was not always the case. During the Khmer Rouge regime, a particularly dyspeptic time period when any and all minority groups were targeted and organized religion was banned, an estimated 100,000 Cham were killed–roughly 40% of the entire group’s community in Cambodia at the time.
Others, however, take a more skeptical tone.
“It is because [Cambodia’s Muslims] do not have the numbers yet,” says Mate Jina, a Thai businessman with holdings in Cambodia. “In the south of Thailand the Muslims are in the majority and so you see them go crazy every so often trying to rip Thailand apart.”
When Thailand isn’t being ripped apart by its own dubious electoral system, class politics, or military coups, there indeed have been sporadic acts of violence, including bombings, in the three most southern provinces where Salafists have at times demanded independence or annexation by Malaysia. This past August, a bomb exploded inside a Hindu shrine in the middle of Bangkok’s shopping district which the Thai junta has blamed on Uighur Muslims from China.
Would the Cham become more assertive or even more extremist if their population were larger? It is perhaps a moot point when discussing a minority group representing just over 1% of the national population, a demographic reality not likely to change anytime soon. For the moment, Cambodia looks like a beacon of religious tolerance and freedom, the nation’s xenophobia and exophthalmic rage aimed more in the direction of the local Vietnamese community.
For people like Manira, her vituperative jawline matching the scowl on her face when asked about an Islamic-oriented uprising in Cambodia one day, the question is anathema.
“My goal is to become an English lecturer at a university, to own my own house, and to have children one day. Most people have goals like this,” she postulates with bucolic certainty. “My family does not want to go back to the days of Pol Pot.”
And as soon as she finishes her soliloquy, an engine nearby fulminates like an IED on a road in Kabul. But in Cambodia, alas, it is merely an old Daelim motobike coughing up its last breath.