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ISLAM IN CAMBODIA: Resurgence or Extremism?

Paper No. 701                               02/06/2003

by B. Raman

The Cambodian authorities announced on May 30, 2003, the arrest of two Thais and an Egyptian on suspicion of having links with the Jemaah Islamiyah(JI), an extremist organisation of South-East Asia, which is alleged to be associated with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. The JI has been blamed by the Indonesian authorities for last October's explosion in Bali. The Cambodian authorities also ordered the expulsion from their country of 28 teachers belonging to  Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen and Egypt  along with their families, making a total of 47 persons.  They were reported to be searching for another foreigner--described as an Yemeni -- on a charge of links with the JI.

2. According to the Cambodian authorities, all these persons were associated with a school run by an organisation called the Umm al Qura (UAQ), which has also been ordered to close down its activities, including the school.  The arrested Egyptian named Esam Mohammad Khidr Ali has been described as the chief of the UAQ.  In addition to Phnom Penh, it had two branches in the provinces, which have also been ordered to close down.

3. Media reports say that these actions were taken on the basis of intelligence received from  the USA about the association of the UAQ and the arrested individuals with the JI  and the likely threat of a terrorist action by them during the meetings of the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) member-countries at Phnom Penh from June 16 to 21. Gen.Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, is among those expected to attend these meetings.

4.Cambodia has an estimated  total population of about 12 million, of whom more than 11 million are Buddhists and the remaining non-Buddhists, belonging to Islam, Christianity, the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion  and the Bahai faith.  Islam is the religion of the Cham and Malay minorities. Its adherents are mostly found in Phnom Penh and in the  rural fishing villages of the  Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang, and Kampot provinces. About 90 per cent of the Muslims belong to the Malay-influenced Shafi branch (Sunnis). The remaining are the Saudi influenced Wahabis, adherents of an idigenous branch called  the  Iman-San and the Quadianis of  Indo-Pakistan origin.

5. Before the Khmer Rouge seized power, the total number of Muslims in the country was estimated at about 200,000.  Their number came down due to persecution by the communists, with many who could escape massacres by the communists fleeing the country.  There was an increase in the number of Muslims after the end of the communist rule, but no estimate of their present number is available.

6. Those, who survived the communist persecution and stayed on in the country, found themselves forced to abandon their religious practices. The Khmer Rouge destroyed about 130 mosques in the country and the persecution of the Mullas resulted in a steep decline in their number from over 100 to about 20.

7. Since the end of the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, there has been an attempt by Islamic organisations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to remove the lingering influence of communism from the minds of the Muslims of Cambodia and to promote a resurgence of Islam.  Amongst the organisations playing an active role in this connection are the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) of Pakistan and the Umm Al-Qura University of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

8. The TJ, which came into existence in India during the British rule, describes its objective as to make all Muslims good Muslims by improving their knowledge and understanding of the Holy Koran and to remove sectarian differences in the religion. The headquarters of the TJ are still located in India, where it continues to follow its original objectives and has avoided getting involved in any extremist activities.

9. However, since the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Pakistan branch of the TJ has been increasingly associated with the activities of terrorist organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), all of which are members of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF).

10. Despite this association, which is more clandestine than open, the TJ, till a few years ago, was not viewed with suspicion by many countries of the world.  The preachers of the TJ had, therefore, no difficulty in getting visas for undertaking visits to other countries for teaching the Holy Koran to the local Muslims and for training Mullas. Taking advantage of this, the above-mentioned terrorist organisations started sending their cadres as members of the teaching teams of the TJ to other countries for establishing clandestine links with local Muslim organisations and inducing them to take to jihad against the US and Israel and their non-Muslim oppressors. Following this, some countries in Africa, Russia and  China  stopped issuing visas to the TJ teaching teams.

11.The US too has started taking the TJ more seriously following the arrests of some local residents of Yemeni origin (near New York) last year, who had allegedly been to Afghanistan.  It was reported that the investigation brought out that they had initially gone to Pakistan ostensibly to attend the annual convention of the TJ and from there went to Afghanistan.

12. The TJ also provides financial assistance to Muslim students from other countries for studying in the madrasas of Pakistan.  Nearly 400 students from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand were studying in  the madrasas of Pakistan last year with scholarships provided by the TJ, which recruits the students for studies in the Pakistani madrasas not only during the visits of its teaching teams to South-East Asia (SEA), but also from amongst the Muslim nationals of the South-East Asian countries working in the Gulf.  They are persuaded to go to Pakistan for jihadi training in the madrasas, after which they go back to the Gulf to resume their work.  During their annual visits to their home towns for their vacation, they are encouraged to  spread the ideology of the terrorist organisations.

13. Many Muslim youth from Cambodia go to Kelantan in Malaysia for religious studies and are often contacted there too by touring TJ teams, which persuade them to become better Muslims by studying in the madrasas of Pakistan. It is estimated that every year, about 400 Cambodian Muslims go to Malaysia and another 80 to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kuwait  and Saudi Arabia for religious studies.

14. Lt.Gen.(retd). Javed Nasir, former Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the first tenure of Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister (1990-93), is an active member of the TJ.  He had functioned as its Amir while heading the ISI as well as after he was sacked  by the Pakistan Government under US pressure in 1993.  In a defamation suit filed by him against a Pakistani newspaper, which is presently being heard before a Pakistani court, he has narrated how he had organised a secret airlift of weapons to the Bosnian Muslims which, according to him, had angered the US against him.

15. After he was sacked from the ISI, he used to visit the S.E.Asian countries, including Cambodia, with TJ teams to promote Islamic resurgence. Many Saudi organisations, including the UAQ University of Saudi Arabia, have also been providing funds to the mosques and religious schools of Cambodia to promote Islamic resurgence.  But, while the TJ projects itself as free of any sectarian preferences, the UAQ and other Saudi organisations want to encourage the spread of orthodox Wahabism amongst the Muslims of Cambodia, in order to increase their number.

16. The campaign for the promotion of Islamic resurgence in Cambodia consists of activities such as construction of new mosques (their number is estimated at about 150), renovation of mosques damaged during the communist rule, spread of Islamic education, training new mullas,encouraging the observance of Islamic practices, teaching the Arabic language etc.  The Wahabi clerics of Pakistan, who were close to the Taliban,were influenced by the Taliban's campaign against the Buddhist influence in Afghanistan, which led to the demolition of the historic Buddhist statue at Bamiyan in 2001. They carry their anti-Buddhist propaganda with them wherver they go. Cambodia is no exception. They call for removing what they describe as the distorting influence of not only communism, but also Buddhism and Hinduism  from the minds of the Cambodian Muslims. This is because it is alleged that many Cham Muslims, in addition to attending prayers in the mosques, continue to worship the Buddha and the Hindu deities at home and visit the Hindu shrines in Angkor Vat for prayers.

17. The indicators till last year were that the main objective of all these Saudi and Pakistani assisted activities were to re-introduce and strengthen orthodoxy in the Muslim religion in Cambodia and not to instigate them to take to jihadi terrorism of the bin Laden kind.  Despite this, foreign intelligence agencies were nervous over the unchecked activities of foreign Muslim radical elements in Cambodia. That this nervousness was also shared by some people in Cambodia, even local Muslims,  was evident from an interview given by Ahmad Yahya, one of the  prominent Muslims of Cambodia, who is also a Member of Parliament, to  the New York Times (December 23,2002) He said:" I told the (US) Ambassador, don't worry about our people. Our people I can guarantee. But the Bangladeshis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Saudis and people like that who come here, I cannot guarantee."

18.The arrests and expulsions ordered by the Cambodian Government and the closure of the Saudi-funded Islamic school show that this nervousness was well-founded. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter E-Mail: