A Change of Guard

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Wednesday 31 December 2008

Cambodia Muslims Enjoy Inclusion

By IslamOnline.net & Newspapers


"We consider this country as our own," Osman, who wrote two books on Muslims in Cambodia, affirms.

CAIRO — Deep-rooted connections of shared history and a longtime atmosphere of tolerance make Muslims in the small Buddhist Kingdom of Cambodia feel part and parcel of their country.

"We consider this country as our own," Osman Ysa, a Cambodian Muslim author and researcher, told the Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday, December 30.

In Cambodia, the Muslim minority enjoys a spirit of harmony and coexistence.

In villages and cities across the Southeast Asian nation, Muslims and non-Muslims have long lived side by side in unity.

"I've been living with Muslim neighbors since I was young," says resident Ouk Ros.

"When there's a marriage, we join together in the party."

Furthermore, government initiatives have helped fostering tolerance for Muslims in Cambodia, observers affirm.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has built large mosques and provided free radio airtime for Muslim-oriented programs.

Just this year, the government allowed Muslim students to wear Islamic attire, including hijab -- an obligatory code of dress for Muslim women.

Muslims also enjoy political say as there are about a dozen Muslims serving in top political offices from the Senate to the Commune Councils. Premier Sen has his own advisor on Muslim affairs.

As a result, and unlike the trend in many neighboring countries, Muslims' existence in Cambodia is not marred by independence ambitions, experts say.

"We don't have any separate lands, and we don't want any separate lands," said Osman, the author of two books on Muslims in Cambodia.

There are estimated 700,000 Muslims in Cambodia, making up 5 percent of the country's 13 million population.

The majority of Cambodian Muslims belong to the ethnic group known as Cham– a reference to an ancient empire of warriors.


"We are very disappointed by Al Qaeda because God tells: 'Don't kill people,'" Yousuf, a Muslim village elder, says.

For Cambodia Muslims, the unique history they share with their non-Muslim compatriots protects them from being penetrated by radicals.

"The Khmer Rouge look liked Al Qaeda," says Sley Ry, the director of religious education at the Cambodian Islamic center, the country's largest Islamic school, located near the capital Phnom Penh.

When the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge movement seized power in 1975, they outlawed religion and discriminated against the Muslim population.

By 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fell, about 500,000 Muslims had been killed.

As a result, Cambodia Muslims affirm that the violent ideologies of groups like Al-Qaeda could hardly win the hearts and minds of their minority.

"We are very disappointed by Al Qaeda because God tells: 'Don't kill people,'" says Yousuf Bin Abetalip, an elder of Choy Changua, a village just outside Phnom Penh, where about 300 Muslim families live.

"We've already suffered a lot."

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