A Cham Ramadan| August 22, 2013
You can check out videos of the adhaan (call to prayer) and part of the sermon here!
This summer was nothing if not a summer of firsts. This summer marked the first time I had traveled, lived, and worked outside the US by myself. It would also be the first time I would spend Ramadan outside the US (aside from my early childhood in Bangladesh, which doesn’t really count since I was too young to observe Ramadan).
A Brief History of Islam in Cambodia
Although Cambodia is an overwhelmingly Buddhist, Islam has deep roots in this nation. The advent of Islam in Cambodia can be traced back to the arrival of Muslims fleeing the Umayyad Empire. Muslim Arab traders would later interact directly with the Cham, who soon adopted Islam. The Cham peoples of both Cambodia and Vietnam were initially followers of Shaivite Hinduism. The Cham had their own kingdom in present-day Vietnam called Champa, which both co-existed with as well as frequently clashed with their powerful Khmer neighbors. The Cham in Cambodia adopted Islam sometime in the 11th Century, while their cousins in Vietnam continue to predominantly follow Hinduism-although over a third of the Vietnamese Cham follow Islam as well.
When the Khmer Rogue seized power in Cambodia in 1975, they almost immediately treated the Cham with special hostility. Due to their unique cultural and religious traditions, the Cham were viewed as seditious “others” by the Khmer Rogue leadership and were de-facto enemies of the state. The Cham would endure relentless persecution in which hundreds of mosques were demolished, the majority of Cham imams were murdered, and hundreds of thousands of Cham exterminated.
The Cham Revival
Since the Khmer Rogue were forced from power, the Cham community has once more been allowed to practice their religion freely. In fact, on May 6 Prime Minister Hun Sen visited a Quranic recitation contest in Chaktamuk Hall to try and garner support from the Cham community for his CPP government. While there, he extolled the “Muslim virtues” of avoiding alcohol and made curious claims regarding lower prevalence rates of HIV and AIDs among Cambodian Muslims. He concluded by claiming that Cambodian Muslims were free to practice their faith without persecution and were “lucky to live in Cambodia”, before quickly adding “we aren’t talking [about] the Pol Pot regime.”
While PM Hun Sen was of course pursuing his own political motivations (although interestingly enough, one of the four provinces the opposition CNRP won was Kampong Cham ("Port of the Chams")-Hun Sen's home province, and the province in which, true to its name, most of Cambodia's Cham live), he does make a good point-the situation of the Cham and other Muslims in Cambodia is markedly better than many of their other co-religionists in the region. Muslims in the Philippines and Southern Thailand still live in a state of emergency due to ongoing insurgencies, while Muslims in Myanmar have periodically endured organized pogroms-in fact, Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims aren’t even considered as citizens by the supposedly “democratic” Burmese government. So all things considered, Cambodian Muslims seem to be experiencing quite a social, cultural, political, and spiritual revival.
Although the majority of Cambodian Chams live in Kampong Cham, there is a significant presence in and around Phnom Penh as well. My first sighting of Cambodian Muslims occurred my first week in Cambodia at a bank, where I spotted a young couple. The husband was wearing a kufie, while his wife was wearing a colorful hijab. Later that weekend as I was traveling with the ODC Team to attend the BarCamp Battambang conference, we passed by several Cham communities on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Sights of women with hijabs, men and boys with kufies, and mosques with minarets and domes were certainly a departure from the saffron-robed monks and spectacular temples I had seen thus far in Phnom Penh.
I must confess I did not quite know what to expect when I arrived in Phnom Penh, but soon discovered that the city-a tourist haven in Southeast Asia-truly had all the comforts of home. Wifi, air condition, reliable transportation with minimal traffic…getting adjusted to live in Phnom Penh simply was not as difficult as I imagined it would be. As Ramadan approached, I soon discovered that even observing Ramadan simply wasn’t all that challenging. The weather was certainly not as hot and humid as other places I’ve lived and worked in during the summer (see: Bangladesh, Washington DC, etc.), and our office had air conditioning. Most importantly, the EWMI and ODC staff treated me like family and always made sure I was taking care of myself.
As I eased into Ramadan, I decided that I should take advantage of my lunch breaks to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque. One of the most well-known mosques was Masjid Al Jamee Al Islami near the Chinese Embassy, and so the first Friday of Ramadan I decided to head over there. After finding a tuk-tuk driver who understood where I wanted to go (saying phrases like “Wat Islam”; “Cham masjid”, along with making gestures of Muslim prayers to drive home the point), I reached Masjid Al Jamee Al Islami.
A Multicultural Microcosm of the Muslim World (try saying that three times fast!)
As soon as I entered the mosque grounds, I heard a variety of languages being spoken. Along with the local Khmer and Cham languages, I heard various African languages, Arabic, Urdu/Hindi, and my native Bangla! Naturally curious, I spoke to a group of Bangladeshi expats who had all been working in Phnom Penh for a number of years. They worked for institutions such as the IMF and Work Bank, while some were independent businessmen. In short, they were a white-collared crowd-a refreshing counterbalance to the stereotypical image of South Asian guest workers. I offered my prayers in congregation with this new group of fellow countrymen and we all said our goodbyes. It was absolutely fascinating how one of the first languages I heard upon arriving to the mosque was Bangla, and I must say it was really nice meeting fellow Bangladeshis after so long. I knew I had to return the next Friday.
Electioneering at the Mosque
And so I returned. By this time, the campaign period had started and I noticed numerous cars with CPP logos in the parking lot as well as several CPP campaigners in the courtyard of the mosque itself. Their activities were peaceful-there were no physical acts of intimidation-and they were friendly enough to allow me to take their photos. However, I could not help but feel a bit uncomfortable at their presence-or at least their brazen campaigning on mosque premises. The mosque is traditionally meant to be a spiritual sanctuary which welcomes all within its doors, while spurring most worldly concerns-including political campaigning. I entered the mosque to hear the Friday sermon and perform prayers with the congregation.
Meeting the Elders
After the service, I had the great pleasure to meet several of the elders of the local Muslim community including the imam, the hakim-a spiritual as well as socio-political leader of the community, and even a former Parliamentarian. I first asked them about the political campaigning, and they told me that while they did not particularly like it, they could do little to muffle political passions in such a heated and historic election campaign. Having such a spectacle on the mosque courtyard once every five years seemed to be a price they were willing to pay in order to maintain the greater peace. Given that Cambodia's Muslims are of course a minority community, one could understand how they could ill-afford to antagonize the government.
I then asked the about their community, and the general situation of Cambodian Muslims. They told me that their community is vibrant and growing, and that they have faced no problems from their fellow nonMuslim countrymen. They also told me that they are very proud of their mosque’s cosmopolitan and diverse congregation and that far from being just a "Cham mosque", their worshippers come from all ethnic and national backgrounds. The mosque was originally founded with the help of Pakistani expats along with support from the Pakistani government. The mosque is currently sustained by donations from its congregation as well as financial support from Malaysia, the UAE and other Arab nations.
Ramadan 2013: Bringing Peace to Southeast Asia?
Ramadan is of course a holy month in Islam, when it is believed the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). During this month, the Muslim faithful not only refrain from eating or drinking, but they also try to be more charitable and kind, all in an effort to be closer to God. Ramadan is also a month where Muslims are especially encouraged to end hostilities and strive for peaceful solutions to conflict. It seems that Southeast Asia got the memo.
I was actually in Bangkok for the weekend when news broke out that the Thai government and the main Muslim separatist group, the BNR, had signed a landmark ceasefire in which Thailand’s restive southern provinces would experience calm streets. Just a week later, it was announced that the Filipino government signed an accord with the largest insurgent group in Muslim-majority Mindanao, the MILF. The conflict in the southern Philippines had been going on since 1969 and was one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world, and the long-suffering people of Mindanao would finally witness some peace.
Both ceasefires have since had their deadly detractions and challenges, yet seem to be largely holding up. Only time will tell if these ceasefires will not only endure, but will serve as a springboard for comprehensive political solutions to both conflicts. Yet it was incredibly heartening to see that despite the devastating carnage engulfing the Middle East and North Africa, this Ramadan brought about the possibility of lasting peace to millions of people in Southeast Asia.
This was my first Ramadan abroad, and it has certainly set the bar up high for all future Ramadan adventures. Truly an experience I will never forget! A very special thank you to the elders of Masjid Al Jamee Al Islami for their tremendous graciousness and hospitality.