Islam in Cambodia

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Nur ul-Ihsan Mosque

Islam is the religion of a majority of the Cham (also called Khmer Islam) and Malay minorities in Cambodia. According to Po Dharma, there were 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia as late as 1975. Persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers, however, and by the late 1980s they probably had not regained their former strength. In 2009, the Pew Research Center estimated that 1.6% of the population, or 236,000 people were Muslims.[1] Like other Muslim Cham people, those in Cambodia are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i/ Maturidi denomination Po Dharma divides the Muslim Cham in Cambodia into a traditionalist branch and an orthodox branch. (see Islam in Vietnam)

Background of Early Islam[edit]

The Chams originated from the Kingdom of Champa. After Vietnam invaded and conquered Champa, Cambodia granted refuge to Cham Muslims escaping from Vietnamese conquest.[2]

According to some accounts the Chams first contact with Islam was with one of the fathers-in-law of Prophet Muhammad,[3] who is Jahsh, the father of Zaynab bint Jahsh. It was in the wake of many Sahabas who arrived in Indo-China in 617-18 from Abyssinia by sea route.

Community life[edit]

The Cham have their own mosques. In 1962 there were about 100 mosques in the country. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Muslims in Cambodia formed a unified community under the authority of four religious dignitaries—mupti, tuk kalih, raja kalik, and tvan pake. A council of notables in Cham villages consisted of one hakem and several katip, bilal, and labi. The four high dignitaries and the hakem were exempt from personal taxes, and they were invited to take part in major national ceremonies at the royal court. When Cambodia became independent, the Islamic community was placed under the control of a five-member council that represented the community in official functions and in contacts with other Islamic communities. Each Muslim community has a hakem who leads the community and the mosque, an imam who leads the prayers, and a bilal who calls the faithful to the daily prayers. The peninsula of Chrouy Changvar near Phnom Penh is considered the spiritual center of the Cham, and several high Muslim officials reside there. Each year some of the Cham go to study the Qur'an at Kelantan in Malaysia, and some go on to study in, or make a pilgrimage to, Mecca. According to figures from the late 1950s, about 7 percent of the Cham had completed the pilgrimage and could wear the fez or turban as a sign of their accomplishment.

The traditional Cham retain many ancient Muslim or pre-Muslim traditions and rites. They consider Allah as the all-powerful God, but they also recognize other non-Islamic practices. They are closer, in many respects, to the Cham of coastal Vietnam than they are to other Muslims. The religious dignitaries of the traditional Cham (and of the Cham in Vietnam) dress completely in white, and they shave their heads and faces. These Cham believe in the power of magic and sorcery, and they attach great importance to magical practices in order to avoid sickness or slow or violent death. They believe in many supernatural powers. Although they show little interest in the pilgrimage to Mecca and in the five daily prayers, the traditional Cham do celebrate many Muslim festivals and rituals.

The orthodox Cham have adopted a more conformist religion largely because of their close contacts with, and intermarriages with, the Malay community. In fact, the orthodox Cham have adopted Malay customs and family organization, and many speak the Malay language. They send pilgrims to Mecca, and they attend international Islamic conferences. Conflicts between the traditional and the orthodox Cham increased between 1954 and 1975. For example, the two groups polarized the population of one village, and each group eventually had its own mosque and separate religious organization.


Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims.

Persecution of the Cham in Cambodia took place mainly during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge gained had control over the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) after defeating the Khmer Republic forces in 1975.[4] Under its leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge – formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) – set to redefine the policies of the Democratic Kampuchea through its agrarian and inward-looking economic-political outlook.[5] This resulted in the massive relocation of the masses from urban areas to the countryside where they were forced to work in the fields every day with little food and rest. On top of that, the Khmer Rouge regime began to systematically dismantle the socioeconomic structures of the people and screen them based on their political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds in order to maintain socio-political order based on Pol Pot’s communist ideals. Buddhism, which was then the dominant faith group in Cambodian society was repressed; the monks were made to be defrocked and sent to work in the fields. Scholars and historians have differed in the definite number of victims, but have estimated that nearly one-third of the Cambodian population than were estimated to have been killed by the regime or died out of starvation and disease - bringing the total number to be between the ranges of 1.05 million to 2.2 million lives.[6] The Cham were also not spared from persecution, torture, and death under the hands of the regime. While every other Cambodian then were victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, the persecution, torture, and killings committed by the Khmer Rouge have been proven to be an act of genocide according to the United Nations as ethnic and religious minorities were systematically targeted by Pol Pot and his regime.

  • Nature of the Persecution

Scholars and historians have varying opinions on whether the persecution and killings under the hands of the Khmer Rouge should be considered genocide. This is because the earlier scholarship which came about right after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 had claimed that the victims could have just been collaterals due to the circumstances they were in. For instance, Michael Vickery opined that the killings were "largely the result of the spontaneous excesses of a vengeful, undisciplined peasant army."[7] Such view was also supported by Alexander Hinton, who related an account by a former Khmer Rouge cadre who claimed that the killings were acts of retribution for the injustices of the Lon Nol soldiers when they killed people who were known to be former Viet Minh agents[8] before the rise of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge to power. Vickery – erroneously, as maintained by the more recent scholarship of Ben Kiernan – argued that the number of Cham victims during the Khmer Rouge regime to be around 20,000[9] which would rule out the crime of genocide against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The killings were a centralized and bureaucratic effort by the Khmer Rouge regime, as recently documented by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) through the discovery of Khmer Rouge internal security documents which instructed the killings across Cambodia.[10] Consequently, it could be deduced that the killings were centralized efforts by the regime as evidenced by the official Khmer Rouge documents; however there were also instances of “indiscipline and spontaneity in the mass killings.”[11] On top of that, Etcherson has also maintained that with the systematic mass killings based on political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, and citizenship resulting in the loss of a third of the Cambodian population, the Khmer Rouge is effectively guilty of committing genocide.[12]

David Chandler opined that, although ethnic minorities fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime, they were not targeted specifically because of their ethnic backgrounds, but rather because they were mostly enemies of the revolution (Kiernan, 2002:252; see also the footnote on Chandler’s The Tragedy of Cambodian History, pp. 4, 263-65, 285). Furthermore, Chandler also rejects the use of the terms “chauvinism” and “genocide” just to avoid drawing possible parallels to Hitler. This indicates that Chandler does not believe in the argument of charging the Khmer Rouge regime with the crime of genocide.

Similarly, Michael Vickery holds a similar position to Chandler’s, and refuses to acknowledge the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime as genocide; Vickery regarded the Khmer Rouge a “chauvinist” regime, due to its anti-Vietnam and anti-religion policies (Kiernan, 2002:252; see Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-1982, pp. 181–82, 255, 258, 264-65).

Stephen Heder also conceded that the Khmer Rouge were not guilty of genocide, stating that the atrocities of the regime were not motivated by race (Kiernan, 2002:252; see Heder’s From Pol Pot to Pen Sovan to the Villages, p. 1).

Ben Kiernan makes the argument that it was indeed a genocide and disagrees with the three scholars, by bringing forth examples from the history of the Cham people in Cambodia.

  • Persecution before 1975

The Cham began to rise in prominence through joining the communists as early as the 1950s, with a Cham elder, Sos Man joined the Indochina Communist Party and rose through the ranks to become a major in the Party’s forces. He then returned home to the Easterns Zone in 1970 and joined the CPK, and co-established the Eastern Zone Islamic Movement with his son, Mat Ly. Together, they became the mouthpiece of the CPK to get the Cham people to take part in the revolution (2002:258). Sos Man’s Islamic Movement was also tolerated by CPK’s leadership between 1970-75 (2002:258). The Chams were gradually made to abandon their faith and distinct practices as early as 1972 in the Southwest (2002:258).

Ten Cham villages were taken over by the CPK in 1972-73, where new Cham leaders were instated and led the villagers to work in the fields away from their hometowns. A witness interviewed by Kiernan asserts that they were well-treated by the CPK then, and allowed to return to their homes in 1974 (2002:259). On top of that, the Cham were also classified as “depositee base people,” which makes them further vulnerable to prosecution.

Ben Kiernan argues that the violence and killings in the Eastern Zone did not occur or were not very intense before late 1976.[13] This came largely from Kiernan’s interviews with the locals in 1979 to 1993. Henri Locard in 1995 argues that the violence and killings in the Eastern Zone were similarly intense due to the presence of “a closely interconnected three-tier prison network” across the country in the forms of detention centres on the commune level, the district prisons on the district level, and zone prisons on the provincial level.[14] A similar pattern was discovered in Region 23 within the Eastern Zone, in which the prisons were constructed prior to the Khmer Rouge rise to power in April 1975, which further affirms Locard’s argument (2005:104).[15] Hence, the rate of violence and killings were considerably more intense after the rise of Khmer Rouge to power, beginning 1978. Pol Pot had considered people living in the Eastern Zone as traitors and “enemies with Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds,” no thanks to the proximity of the area to the border of Vietnam, as well as the association of some to the previous regime. Hence, Kiernan was quite accurate to point out that the persecution was not as intense before the rise of Pol Pot to power. On the other hand, Locard’s argument about the constant rate of persecution before and after the coming of Pol Pot to power was also non-substantive due to the new data provided by witnesses.[16] However, it is almost accurate to suggest that oppressive forms of persecution have already existed before the rise of Pol Pot to power.

Despite that, the Cham in many areas do live side by side with the locals, speaking the Khmer language, and even inter-marrying with the majority Khmers as well as the minority Chinese and Vietnamese (Kiernan, 2002:257). The diverse ethnic and cultural practices of Cambodians began to deteriorate with the rise of the CPK in 1972, when the Cham were prohibited from practising their faith and culture – Cham women were required to keep their hair short like the Khmers did; Cham men were not allowed to put on the sarong; farmers were made to put on rudimentary dark or black clothing; religious activities like the mandatory daily prayers were curbed (Kiernan, 2002:258-259). Vickery notes that the Cambodian Cham were discriminated against by the Khmer before the beginning of the war “in some localities,” partly because the Cham were stereotyped as being practitioners of black magic (Kiernan, 2002:256; see also Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-1982, pp. 181.) However, in other localities, the Cham were well-assimilated within the host communities, speaking the Khmer language and inter-marrying to Khmers, Vietnamese, and the Chinese (2002:256).

Between 1972 and 1974, the enforcement of such restrictions was further amplified as the Khmer Rouge found the Cham to be a threat to its communist agenda due to their unique language, culture, belief, and independent communal system. Not only that, the Cham were also renamed “Islamic Khmers,” to disassociate them with their ancestral heritage and ethnicity, and assimilating them into the larger Khmer-dominated Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge believed that the Cham would jeopardise the communist efforts of establishing close-knit communities where everyone could be easily monitored. As such, the regime had decided to disperse the Cham by deporting them from their respective localities to work as peasants across Cambodia, hence contributing directly to the new DK economy. This move was undertaken to ensure that the Cham will not congregate to form its own community again, which undermines the regime’s plan of establishing central economic cooperatives. Slowly, those who defied these restrictions were arrested by the regime. Hence in October 1973, Cham Muslims in the Eastern Zone of DK demonstrated their displeasure towards the CPK restrictions by beating the drums – which are traditionally used to inform local of the time for daily prayers – at the local mosques. This act of communal defiance prompted the blanket arrest of many leaders and religious teachers from the Cham Muslim community (Kiernan, 2002:260-261).

In February 1974, the Cham in Region 31, which is in the Western Zone of DK, protested the CPK policy which required the fishermen to register their daily catch with the local cooperative and sell them to the cooperative at a low price. At the same time, the locals were also made to buy those fishes from the cooperative at a higher price. This prompted the locals to confront the cooperative to express their discontent, only to be shot at, “killing and wounding more than 100,” as one account put it. By December 1974, a rebellion by the Cham in Region 21 of the Eastern Zone had broken out against the CPK after community leaders were arrested. The rebellion was repressed forcefully by the regime with no records of casualties documented (Kiernan, 2002:260-261).

As much as there are records of these restrictions, resistance, and repressions, there were also accounts from the Cham community which deny the oppression by the regime between 1970 and early 1975. While restrictions on certain activities like trade and travel were in place during that period, they were understood to be by-products of the ongoing civil war. Moreover, some Cham had also joined the revolution as soldiers and members of the CPK. According to some local accounts, people had confidence in the Khmer Rouge when they first came to the village communities who assisted the locals with food and provisions, and there were no bans on local culture or religion; even if restrictions were imposed, the consequences were not harsh (Kiernan, 2002:262). The CPK were considered heroes of the revolution as they struggled for the cause of the peasantry and nation against the United States (Hinton, 2005:58). As the Cham communities were to be found across DK, various Cham communities might have experienced the effects of the CPK pre-1975 differently; some communities experienced the repressions and restrictions while others did not. Only when Pol Pot had consolidated power by the end of 1975 that the prosecutions became more severe and affected all of the Cham people indiscriminately.

This could well be one of the simpler factors as to why the Cambodian government and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) do not prosecute the pre-1975 Khmer Rouge perpetrators before Pol Pot consolidated his power. As such, the accounts of those who experienced the repressions prior to 1975 were not considered to be part of the genocide as the case for a systematic annihilation of a people based on ethnic or religious profiling was not concrete enough.

  • Persecution from 1975 to 1979

In 1975, upon the victory of the CPK over the Khmer Republic forces, two brothers of Cham descent who had joined the Khmer Rouge as soldiers returned home to Region 21 within the Kampong Cham province, where the largest Cham Muslim community could be found. The brothers then told their father of the adventures they had experienced being part of the revolution which included killing Khmers and consuming pork, in the hopes of convincing their father to join the communist cause. The father who had remained silent, was clearly not intrigued by the accounts related by his sons. Instead, he grabbed a cleaver, killed his sons, and told his fellow villagers that he had killed the enemy. When the villagers pointed out that he had indeed murdered his own sons, he recounted the stories he was told by his sons earlier, citing the Khmer Rouge’s hatred for Islam and the Cham people. This prompted a unanimous agreement amongst the villagers to kill all Khmer Rouge soldiers within the area on that night. The next morning, more Khmer Rouge forces descended the area with heavy weapons and surrounded the village, killing every single villager in it (Kiernan, 2002:263). Similarly in June or July 1975, the CPK authorities in Region 21 of the Eastern Zone tried to confiscate all copies of the Qur'an from the people, while at the same time impose a mandatory short haircut for Cham women. The authorities were met with mass demonstration staged by the local Cham community who were shot at by the regime soldiers. The Cham retaliated forcefully with swords and blades killing a few soldiers, only to be met with military reinforcement from the regime which annihilated the villagers and their properties (Kiernan, 2002:263-264). In another account by Cham refugees in Malaysia, thirteen leading figures within the Cham Muslim community were killed by the regime in June 1975. The reasons behind the killings was supposedly because some of them were “leading prayers instead of attending a CPK meeting,” while the others were purportedly “petitioning for the permission on marriage ceremonies” (Kiernan, 2002:263).

Events got from bad to worse in mid-1976 due to the rebellion, when the ethnic minorities were obliged to pledge loyalty only to the Khmer nationality and religion – there were to be no other identities besides Khmer. Consequently, the Cham language were not uttered, communal eating where everyone shares the same food became mandatory, forcing the Cham Muslims to raise pigs and consume pork against their religious belief (Kiernan, 2002:269). One explanation for the rise of such rebellions offered by that locals is that some of the Cham were involved in the Khmer Rouge as soldiers who were anticipating positions of power once Pol Pot consolidated power. In 1975, these Cham soldiers were dismissed from the Khmer Rouge forces, deprived from their Islamic practices and robbed of their ethnic identity (Kiernan, 2002:264).

Here, we could point out that the patterns were consistent throughout the killings of the Cham people; first, the dismantling of the communal structure through the murder of the leaders of the Cham Muslim communities, which include the Muftis, Imams, and other learned men of influence; second, the dismantling of the Cham’s Islamic and ethnic identities through the restrictions against distinct practices which distinguished the Cham from the Khmers; third, the dispersal of the Cham from their respective communities, either by forced labour in the fields, or arresting them for alleged plots of resistance or rebellion against the CPK.

During the Khmer Rouge era, all religions, including both Buddhism and Islam were persecuted. According to Cham sources, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era, many others were desecrated, and Muslims were not allowed to worship. Muslims were forced to eat pork and were murdered when they refused. Whole Cham villages were exterminated. Chams were not permitted to speak their language. Cham children were taken away from their parents and raised as Khmers.

Orders given by the Khmer Rouge government in 1979 stated: "The Cham nation no longer exists on Kampuchean soil belonging to the Khmer. Accordingly, Cham nationality, language, customs and religious beliefs must be immediately abolished. Those who fail to obey this order will suffer all the consequences for their acts of opposition to Angkar [the Khmer Rouge high command]."[17]

After the end of Khmer Rouge rule all religions were restored. Vickery believes that about 185,000 Cham lived in Cambodia in the mid-1980s and that the number of mosques was about the same then as it was before 1975. In early 1988, there were six mosques in the Phnom Penh area and a "good number" in the provinces, but Muslim dignitaries were thinly stretched; only 20 of the previous 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia survived the Khmer Rouge period.[18]


Today, Muslims are able to practice their religion normally and out in the open. This commenced in the People Republic of Kampuchea era where religions were restored and allowed to be practiced again. The Chams also enjoy democratic rights like all Khmer citizens, with the right to vote and be elected as politicians.

Notable Muslims[edit]

Amath Yashya

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Miller, Tracy, ed. (October 2009), Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population (PDF), Pew Research Center, p. 31, archived from the original (PDF) on December 24, 2009, retrieved 2009-10-08 
  2. ^ Dr. Mark Phoeun. "PO CEI BREI FLED TO CAMBODIA IN 1795-1796 TO FIND SUPPORT". Cham Today. Translated by Musa Porome. IOC-Champa. Archived from the original on 2006. 
  3. ^ T.W.Arnold, 1913/1997, The Preaching of Islam, Delhi: L.P. Publications, p. 294 n.2.
  4. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. p. 7. 
  5. ^ Osman, Ysa (2002). Oukoubah: Justice for the Cham Muslims under the Democratic Kampuchea Regime. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia. p. 77. 
  6. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 118–119. 
  7. ^ Vickery, Michael (1984). Cambodia: 1975-1982. Boston: South End Press. 
  8. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 45–47. 
  9. ^ Kiernan, Ben (2002). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 (Second Edition). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 254–255. 
  10. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 78–79. 
  11. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 84–85. 
  12. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 10–11. 
  13. ^ Kiernan, Ben (2002). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 (Second Edition). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 209. 
  14. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 90–91. 
  15. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. p. 104. 
  16. ^ Etcheson, Craig (2005). After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. p. 105. 
  17. ^
  18. ^,9171,428133,00.html