Monday, July 18, 2011

Cambodian Muslims and the Cham

Cambodia's Muslims seek justice for genocide
By Michelle Fitzpatrick (AFP)

CHRAING CHAMRES, Cambodia — Zakaria Bin Ahmad cannot forget the years of horror under the brutal Khmer Rouge when even praying was to risk death for Cambodia's persecuted minority Muslims.

Many others in his community did not survive the late 1970s reign of terror by the hardline communist regime, which executed Islamic scholars, destroyed mosques, forced Muslims to eat pork and forbade headscarves.

"People tried all kinds of ways to pray. Sometimes while they were driving an ox cart... sometimes in the jungle when we asked to use the toilet, and sometimes while we were washing," the 61-year-old recalled.

But mostly, he remembers people disappearing, never to be seen again.

"Many were killed," he said quietly in his modest home in the shadow of a modern blue-domed mosque, a source of pride for the town of Chraing Chamres, whose earlier place of worship was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodian Muslims, known as Cham, hope finally to see justice as the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders stand trial for genocide at Cambodia's UN-backed court over the treatment of the ethnic and religious minority…

Point of detail…

When speaking loosely, it is comparatively easy to blur the distinction between Cambodian Muslims and the Cham, particularly when speaking of the exceptionally hard treatment the Cham received under the Khmer Rouge (1975-79.) In fact, most Cambodian Muslims are Cham and the persecution of the Cham under the KR included, in part, attacks on and the defiling of their Muslim faith. But to state (or strongly imply) that to be Cambodian Muslim is to be Cham (see bold above) is to focus the blur into an inaccuracy.

The Cham are an ethnic group descended from the people of Champa, an ancient kingdom formerly located in what is now central Vietnam. Champa's history can be traced into the early first millennium AD. By the end of the millennium Champa had become a traditional rival of the Angkorian Khmer Empire. Like their Khmer neighbors, the Cham were Hindu and Buddhist for more than 1000 years, converting to Islam only late in their history, in the 15th-18th centuries AD. The Kingdom of Champa was slowly diminished over the centuries by wars with the bordering Khmer Kingdom (Cambodia) and a southward expanding Vietnam, and was finally extinguished by the Vietnamese by the 18th century AD. During Champa's final couple of centuries, as they were whittled down by Vietnam, waves of Cham refugees fled into Cambodia where they received sanctuary. They exist to this day in Cambodia as a distinct ethnic group with their own language, religion and cultural practices, and tend to live concentrated in certain areas.

As such, the Cham are not just Cambodians that happen to be Muslims. For example, Khmer Cambodians that are Muslim are not Cham, but Khmer Muslims. The Khmers are the largest and the dominant ethic group in Cambodia (i.e. the ethnic group that is ordinarily associated with Cambodia, i.e. the land of the Khmer.) The Cham are, on the other hand, an ethnic minority in Cambodia, who happen to be, as a rule, Muslim. While most Cham in Cambodia are Cambodian Muslims, being a Cambodian Muslim does not not necessarily make one Cham.

This may seem a picayune if not pedantic point, but it is worth noting, if for no reason than to recall that the Cham have a deep and complex history, and a relationship with Cambodia and the Khmer that began long before their comparatively recent adoption of Islam, even well predating the advent of Islam. And further, to note that the reasons for the extra attention inflicted on the Cham by the Khmer Rouge are still a matter of debate - that the Cham may not have been targeted because they were Cambodian Muslims, or at least not wholly, but because they were Cham, a distinctive non-Khmer ethnic group, as the Khmer Rouge also targeted ethic Vietnamese. 

Also see:

Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham

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