The Muslim Cham in Cambodia

Posted on by Tim LaRocco


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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.

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“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.

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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.

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14 Responses to The Muslim Cham in Cambodia

  1. Kenneth E. Bauzon says:

    Artistically written and with intelligence, empathy, and a touch of engrossing humor, Prof. Tim LaRocco does his usual in informing his readers with the fundamentals of his subject without cramming one’s head, in this case the Muslim minority community in a predominantly Buddhist country in a way that draws the inevitable comparison with contiguous neighboring countries in the region also struggling with their own Muslim minorities, e.g., Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. If you wish to get introduced to Prof. LaRocco’s writings, this is one piece to start with.

  2. Seven heads says:

    “Cambodia’s religious tolerance”

    The Hindu angkor empire slaughtered thousands of Muslim Cham and drove them off the land. Later the Pol Pot clique killed thousands more, closed the mosques and forced the survivors to eat pork. Pol Pot was of course educated in a Buddhist Wat as a child .

    • bman says:

      There is so much wrong in this comment that I need to correct you. During the angkor period the chams were hindu, they converted to islam a few centuries later. Polpot was a atheist not a buddhist and he discriminated all religious groups equally as communism does.

  3. Kenneth E. Bauzon says:

    To the Moderator of this news magazine: I posted this comment earlier today, “Artistically written and with intelligence, empathy, and a touch of engrossing humor, Prof. Tim LaRocco does his usual in informing his readers with the fundamentals of his subject without cramming one’s head, in this case the Muslim minority community in a predominantly Buddhist country in a way that draws the inevitable comparison with contiguous neighboring countries in the region also with Muslim minorities, e.g., Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. If you wish to get introduced to Prof. LaRocco’s writings, this is one piece to start with.”
    And you saw fit to censor it. May I ask why? Is it vulgar? Did I use bad language? Did I insult anyone? What are your criteria in deciding whether or not to allow a comment? In comparison to the above-comment that you allowed (“The Hindu angkor empire slaughtered thousands of Muslim Cham and drove them off the land. Later the Pol Pot clique killed thousands more, closed the mosques and forced the survivors to eat pork. Pol Pot was of course educated in a Buddhist Wat as a child.”), the commenter uses strong words like “slaughter” or “killed” and “forced”, in reference to the “Hindu angkor empire”, but you did not see fit to ask the commenter to cite evidence. Maybe there is evidence, but do you just let the readers assume without requiring the author to provide evidence? Is that what you tell your readers, to assume? What kind of editors are you?

    • scobienz says:

      It wasn’t censored. You posted it at 7.30pm last night, and then your follow up at 4.30am this morning local time.

      I check these messages every morning, once a day. Relax Kenneth. Patience is a virtue.

      For your information, this ‘checking’ mechanism only applies to new posters. After three posts, your messages don’t need pre-appoval. This is in place to prevent spammers etc.

  4. Billy says:

    They are few in number and not regionally-distributed (unlike the Muslims in Thailand.)

    They know their place.

    Enough said.

    • steve-o says:

      This is more or less what a Khmer friend told me when I asked him why the Cham don’t make trouble in Cambodia. His words; ” If they did, we would kill them all. “

  5. bman says:

    There is no islamic terrorism in cambodia simply because cambodia is a dictatorship. If chams ever step out of line and get on the bad side of Hun sen they will be violently dealt with. Also Cambodians lack the PC nature of westerners as a result will have no qualms indiscriminately attacking cham communities if things come to loggerheads. Cambodians as a ethnicity have genocidal tendencies, this aspect of cambodians was well documented by the french and vietnamese in cochin china (current day mekong delta) which observed that khmers would try to genocide their vietnamese neighbours at every opportunity they could. The Chams understand this side of khmers because they experienced it themslves under the khmer rouge. In khmer this is called “salab ma pouch” which translates to killing of the whole blood line.

  6. Umroh Murah says:

    Islam may grow and flourish in cambodia is Islam according to the Quran and authentic hadith. Islam brings goodness to the world and the end of the day. When there are people who commit violent and the name of Islam, the Quran actually only got their throat and not up to their hearts

  7. Jilly says:

    “Would the Cham become more assertive or even more extremist if their population were larger?” could you be more insulting? The basic idea of this article is born out of the current prejudice towards Islam and the media’s lazy representation of Muslims as blood-thirsty terrorists. Why are no other minorities discussed? While the author has mentioned other religion driven intolerance, by mentioning the Buddhists lynch mobs of Burma, it does more to continue the dialogue that Muslims in any country are a problem waiting to happen. Where are the reports of the millions of muslim doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs and charity workers who contribute to non muslim societies everyday? It may shock people to think that the Cham are not waiting for the right moment to attack, but just living out their lives as peaceful citizens, like the majority of human beings. That would be a more original and interesting research article than this small minded re-hash of a singular view. Disappointing.

  8. James Mason says:

    Jilly tells us that lots and lots of Muslims are super-dooper spiffy people and few would dispute that.

    Yet the reality persists that in every continent except Antarctica (so far) Muslim terrorism is a reality of life.

    Let us just turn for a moment to the ‘refugee’ tsunami crashing into Europe and dream up a childish comparison: I offer Jilly a big bowl of sweeties and say ‘Look Jilly! A thousand Smarties (M&Ms) and they’re all for you! Only five of them are deadly poisonous but the other 995 are just fine!’

    Does that sound like a good deal?

  9. Kane says:

    The reality of life, Mr. James whoknowsmuch, is that there are people like you spreading hatred among people and others trying to live and let live.

  10. James Mason says:

    The horrid British semi-tabloid ‘Daily Express’ has good photo coverage of many interesting occurrences:

    http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/646263/Migrants-Riot-Belgium-Leopoldsburg-Syrian-Afghan-Iraq-Headscarf-Police-Arrest

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