The suggestion that members of Cambodia's Islamic minority have joined ISIS —a claim vigorously denied by leaders of this community — has briefly focused attention on a religious group in mainland Southeast Asia that is little understood by other than a few specialists.

The last time there was a similar flurry of media attention directed towards Cambodia's Islamic community was when it was revealed that Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin), the claimed mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing, had been living in Cambodia for six months in late 2002 and early 2003 before his arrest in August 2003 in Thailand. While details remain obscure, it appears that Hambali received assistance while in Cambodia from foreign Islamists—one Egyptian and two Thai. The extent to which he dealt with the Cambodian Islamic community beyond living in a small mosque in suburban Phnom Penh has never been established.

Even to write in terms of the Cambodian Islamic 'community' is misleading, or at very least inadequate. In the 1950s, King Sihanouk, in an effort to find a way to emphasise that followers of Islam were just as much part of the Cambodian nation as the majority Buddhists, coined the term 'Khmers Islam' or 'Islamic Cambodians'. Recently, I was told in Phnom Penh that this term is no longer in favour among the followers of Islam themselves.

Moreover, its use, like the readiness to describe the followers of Islam in Cambodia by their ethic identity as 'Chams', is itself unsatisfactory (as an example, this misleading catch-all use of the term Chams occurs in a 2010 Phnom Penh US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks). Not all followers of Islam in Cambodia are, in fact, Chams, an ethnic group originally from central Vietnam whose ancestors migrated to Cambodia over many centuries. There are still a significant number of Chams living in Vietnam itself.

Of the total number of members of the Islamic community, which may be as many as 500,000 in a total population of 15 million, an uncertain proportion, perhaps 10-15%, are Malays, the descendants of settlers from sections of modern Malaysia and Sumatra. Moreover, there is an important division within the Cham community between those who pray only once a week and who regard themselves as the preservers of traditional Cham culture, and those whose observance of Islam is more orthodox.

As already noted, detailed academic study of the Islamic community in Cambodia in modern times has been limited, with the work by William Collins of particular importance, though the reference I drew on for my 2004 Lowy Issues Brief, The 'Khmer Islam' Community in Cambodia and its Foreign Patrons no longer appears to be available on the web. Other more recent contributions include a publication by Amiko Stock.

The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

The Islamic community suffered grievously during the Pol Pot regime, with an estimated 95,000 dying from executions, overwork, hunger and disease out of what was then a total population of 250,000. Mosques were destroyed, with some being used (with the deliberate intention of causing grave offence) as pigsties, while members of the community were forced to eat pork.

At the time the Pol Pot regime was overthrown, the followers of Islam in Cambodia were in a shattered state. Their plight was recognised, at first slowly, but later on a widespread basis, by fellow Muslims in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and funds began to pour in to Cambodia to assist them. It is not an overstatement to note that domestic and international reaction to the suffering the community endured during the Khmer Rouge period has had a transformative effect on Islam in Cambodia

The contemporary scene

The true scale of external aid to the Islamic community is almost impossible to quantify. Individual donations are often reported in the Cambodian press, with funds coming from the government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, for instance, as well as from private individuals including in Dubai. But in the case of Malaysia, there has been some reluctance to specify the size of the largesse.  

Equally, it is difficult to place precise numbers on the Islamic 'missionaries' who have come to Cambodia to preach a more orthodox observance of Islam, in particular Dakwah Tabligh and Wahhabi Islam. What is apparent is that there are now many more mosques, with new mosques often built in a Middle Eastern architectural style, than was the case before 1970. A range of reports refer to the adoption in many Cambodian Muslim villages of stricter separation of the sexes in communal gatherings and the wearing of Middle Eastern dress, including women going fully veiled.

Equally uncertain is the precise number of Cambodian followers of Islam studying abroad in southern Thailand, Malaysia and the Middle East. The links with southern Thailand and Malaysia go back as far as the nineteenth century, if not before. While some foreign observers have questioned whether Cambodian Muslims have participated in the endemic violence of southern Thailand, no convincing evidence of such action has ever been presented.

Hun Sen's CPP government has repeatedly claimed that it is both comfortable in its dealings with the Islamic community and alert to any suggestions that members of the community might be vulnerable to extremist teachings. The mufti of Cambodia's Islamic community operates with government approval, but more importantly leading members of the community have held important offices during the CPP's long tenure in office (eg. figures such as Mat Ly and Ahmad Yahya, the first after a period of working with the Khmer Rouge, the latter as secretary for social affairs and as a translator of the Koran into the Cham language).

As a long-time observer of Cambodia, I have been struck during recent visits to Phnom Penh by the extent to which, in the eyes of my ethnic Cambodian interlocutors, the Islamic community is seen as firmly apart from the Buddhist majority, however much the Government seeks to present a picture of 'Khmers Islam' as an integral part of the nation. These views come from a limited and admittedly elite sample of local observers. But one theme was pervasive: the belief that the Islamic community in Cambodia is more rather than less integrated into the national community than once was the case.

It has long been the case that many Muslim villages have existed as separate entities, and the suggestion is that this separation has been reinforced in villages located along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers as a result of the growth of orthodox Islam. The tendency for followers of Islam in Cambodia living in distinctly separate villages is, according to some observers, less marked among Malay members of the community.

On one point there seemed to be general agreement among those I have spoken to over recent years: the extent to which the majority of the Islamic community remains poor and lacking in modern education. Whether this makes members of the community more vulnerable to extremist blandishments is an open question.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Edwin Lee.