Cambodia’s Cham Muslim population is unlikely to embrace a militant form of Islam that pushes them toward radicalism because of their experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime and their close ties to their fellow Khmers.
That is the conclusion of new research conducted during the past four years by Eng Kok-Thay, who this month completed his doctoral dissertation on Cham Muslim communities at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Though Mr. Kok-Thay—who is deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia—is not himself a Cham, he believes that his research will provide a new window of understanding into Muslim communities in Cambodia.
“Very few Khmers study the Chams—or I should say, very few Buddhists study the Chams—because of discriminatory thinking,” Mr. Kok-Thay said this week.
“The public’s awareness of the details and understanding of this group has been few, and then you have these allegations or stereotypes against them,” Mr. Kok-Thay added. “So in doing this research, I may be able to contribute to further understanding and reduce the stereotypes and discrimination against them.”
Such stereotypes among Khmers include the belief that some Cham Muslims practice black magic. There is also a fear that Cham Muslims could one day turn toward a more radical form of Islam.
That is why Mr. Kok-Thay focused his research on the evolution of the group’s identity in his dissertation, “From the Khmer Rouge to Hambali: Cham Identities in a Global Age,” which is due to be published next year.
Hambali—the nom de guerre of Riduan Isamuddin, the military leader of an al-Qaida-linked Indonesian terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002—who was in hiding in Cambodia for several months in late 2002 and early 2003 before he left for Thailand where he was arrested, said Mr. Kok-Thay.
That year, the Cham Muslim community was placed under an increased amount of scrutiny. Two Islamic schools in Kandal and Kompong Chhnang provinces were shut down and a Saudi Arabian-based organization, Om-Alqura—which funds the schools—was outlawed, and foreign teachers at schools were sent home.
Hambali had stayed for a short time at the school in Kandal province. Two Thai Muslims staying at the school were later charged and jailed, along with a Cambodian Cham man, for being part of a plot to bomb the British and U.S. embassies in Phnom Penh.
The evidence against the three suspects was seriously lacking.
“The Chams did not feel that they themselves would commit terrorism and they were embarrassed to be linked,” Mr. Kok-Thay said, who conducted extensive interviews with 85 Cham Muslims for his research. “They also did not feel that there was sufficient evidence [against the three accused Muslims].”
A key reason Cham Muslims are unlikely to radicalize can also be linked to their plight during the Khmer Rouge regime, he said.
During the Pol Pot regime Cham Muslims were killed because of their religion and their culture. Mr. Kok-Thay said that living together in collectives with Buddhist Khmers has helped in fostering a sense of shared solidarity between the two communities.
“After the Khmer Rouge, the Chams became more connected to the Khmer people, because they were suffering under the same situation. Under the Khmer Rouge, you share the same identity—you eat together, you live together,” he said.
In the early 1990s, as Cambodia started to open up to the rest of the world, Cambodia experienced an influx of donations from Islamic countries and the growth of stricter forms of Islamic worship.
But Mr. Kok-Thay said the Chams’ choice to lean toward fundamentalism does not translate into militant tendencies because Cham Muslims do not feel that they need an autonomous state.
“There is fundamentalism but not radicalism,” he said. “They want their practice of Islam to be more sophisticated, so they try to learn, interpret and understand it more.”
“But they also want to live peacefully side-by-side with the Khmers,” he added. “They have no desire to commit terrorism, no desire for an autonomous state inside Cambodia, or to create a separate state.”
Today, Mr. Kok-Thay believes that Cambodian society is more inclusive of the Cham community. For example, there are more government officials who are Chams, and there are prayer rooms for Muslims in the Peace Palace and the Council of Ministers.
“[The Chams] just want to be accepted. They call themselves Khmer too when they talk.”