Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli was in Washington, D.C. last week, where he described Cambodian Cham Muslims as a “very peaceful and tolerant group,” and then immediately went on to discuss the serious concerns he had regarding their potential radicalization from “outside extremists.” Reported in Voice of America: (via KI-Media)
A lot of money was coming into Cambodia’s Chams from groups spreading a violent, intolerant form of Islam, which have a lot of resources and are attracted to poor communities.
I thought of saying something snarky about this, such as identifying a few other groups which “have a lot of resources and are attracted to poor communities,” such as USAID. Instead, I’ll attempt to be more mature on this page: I asked my friend Alberto Perez-Pereiro, currently doing research in Cambodia on the Cham, to contribute a short piece in response to the Ambassador’s comments. His judicious and thoughtful piece is below; I think it deserves serious attention. Alberto begins after the jump:
“Muslim terrorists huh? Let me drop my three cents here:
First – yes, terrorism, the calculated use of violence against civilians and non-combatants to achieve political aims is a real phenomenon and the SE Asia region probably has the greatest potential for expansion of the type of terrorism that is motivated by Islamist ideologies. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refrain from mentioning state terrorism or proxy terrorism and accept the implicit assumptions behind the ambassador’s statements, namely that terrorism is something done by foreigners (and particularly Muslim foreigners) to Americans and their allies. While this is a pretty limited definition of terrorism, it still covers a fair amount that we should be concerned about whether it’s the situation in Southern Thailand or the connections between regional groups like Jama’at al-Islamiyyah and and organizations with broader ambitions such as Al-Qaeda.
The collision of state authority, which is ultimately beholden to concentrations of domestic power and their partners in the global financial community, with the aspirations of the local populations for social justice and economic development have made and will continue to make ideological alternatives to neo-liberal models of development attractive. With the retreat of the left in recent decades, Islamism of one sort or another is one of the few forces that can both provide a comprehensive critique of the status quo and rally enough people to its banner so that change appears to be a real possibility. We all know that Thai or Indonesian Marxist intellectual that would be eager to expound upon his vision of a socialist future for the region, but he’s a lot more likely to be holed up in a university office or involved in a local labor organization than heading anything like a national-level organization. So that leaves us with organizations inspired by some feeling of Islamic solidarity, which, in a sense, implies some kind of confrontation with a non-Islamic other. This point is critical to understanding the next issue.
Second – (and here I want to speak specifically about the Muslim community in Cambodia) the penetration of Islamic missionaries as well as development and educational organizations into Cambodia is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, only some of which are related to the potential for expanded terrorist activity. Most important is the kind of isolation that these groups promote. Readers of your blog are probably aware that Cambodia is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country and that Buddhism is the religion of the state. (article 43 of the constitution, I think…) Muslims are a very small minority of the population- about 350,000 out of a population of 14 million. So unlike places like Malaysia or Indonesia, it’s extremely difficult for new understandings of Islam brought from the Middle East to find expression in politics and mainstream public life. The result is that foreign Islamic organizations tend to promote a separation from the Khmer society – a bubble within which they can put Islam into social practice far away from the contaminating Khmer influence. Unlike Thailand however, Muslims live throughout the country without a any particular territorry in which they form a majority. Even Kampong Cham where almost half of all Muslims live is still overwhelmingly Khmer. This means that a movement to resist government authority as in the south of Thailand is not really very feasible. So what are the consequences of Islamic aid to the Muslim community.
While Khmers and Muslims may encounter each other at the market with regularity, in most areas, social contact between the two is very limited. The expansion of Islamic schooling and other public services is going to make this divide even greater – making the Muslim community even more socially self-contained and further reducing contact between Khmers and Muslims. While the ambassadors statements express a well founded concern about the attitudes of Muslims to non-Muslims it ignores the converse of non-Muslim attitudes towards Muslims. Khmers for the most part are either a) completely ignorant of Muslims and Muslim society in Cambodia, b) suspicious of their intentions because of perceived connections between them and other foreign threats such as the Vietnamese, c) terrified of their ability to use black magic to cause harm or disease, or d) a combination of the previous three. Beliefs that Muslims are powerful sorcerers are common, ranging from the ‘kruu snae Cham’, the Cham love doctor, to much more sinister characters. When I tell Khmers that I study Islam in Cambodia, I almost always get a variant of the following question: “In our religion, Buddhism, the Buddha teaches us to be good and not kill people and that if you kill someone that is a sin (thwoe bab), but I heard that in the Muslim religion if you kill someone then you get merit (thwoe bony). Is that true?” It’s hardly a question at all really.
If we look at the issues that are going to face the country in the future – environmental, degradation and pressure on land, government corruption, continued land-grabs, and the still unknown but likely deleterious effects of bazillions of dollars in oil money entering the economy, it seems pretty clear that the regardless of what beef they may potentially have with Americans, Europeans, Christians, Buddhists or others, most problems in the community will stem from local issues and will likely mirror the concerns of Khmers in some way. That said, the chasm that divides Muslims from Khmers will be potentially explosive. It’s not merely a question of people not making friends with people who are different from themselves and living in a multi-cultural rainbow paradise… The question is for how long will a conflict over land between a Khmer and a Muslim community remain a conflict over land rather than a conflict between Khmers and Muslims? Khmers and foreigners? Foreigners that would do to Cambodia what the Vietnamese did in Kampuchea Krom? (It is a commonly held belief in Kampong Cham, that the Muslims would like to secede and give the lands east of the Mekong to Vietnam).
It’s not difficult to imagine how public sentiment can be retooled to cast Muslims as a foreign other. In fact, the nature of Muslim belonging in the country is somewhat ambigous. While Hun Sen has publicly stated that Muslims must be accepted as an integral part of the country even saying that school uniform restrictions should be modified so as to not discriminate against hijab-wearing Muslim girls, many Khmers continue to imagine Muslims as a foreign group – perhaps not as foreign as Americans or French but still not quite having the same claim to Cambodia as the Khmers. The 12th grade social science textbook presents the minorities of Cambodia in two categories – those that aren’t really minorities since they are from somewhere else and have connections to another homeland outside of Cambodia, such as the Vietnamese or the Chinese, and those that are completely internal to Cambodia such as the hill tribes of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. The Cham are in the former category. Where exactly it is that they are supposed to be able to go is not really clear, but the fact that their situation is more like that of the Vietnamese than that of the Pnong is made clear.
The purpose of the above is not to contradict what the amabassador said or to minimize his concerns but to help set the context in which Cambodian Muslims interprets the significance of foreign Islamic aid. All too often, commentators in the West, even those who should know better, frame our understanding of the Muslim community exclusively in terms of their relationship to ‘us’ without considering whether that relationship is really the most salient aspect of their personal and collective experience and whether it is their understanding of that relationship that really informs their actions. Cambodian Muslims are a small minority overwhelmingly concerned with local issues like public welfare, education and the future their children will grow up in. Now these very same concerns and the inability or negligence of the state to address them is a great part of why Islamic organizations and missionaries are enjoying the success that has the US embassy concerned. They should be concerned. These folks didn’t come all the way to Cambodia to preach love, happiness and friendship with non-Muslims. In fact, even within the Muslim communtiy there are sharp divisions and many Muslims regard other Muslims as being misguided or even as being unbelievers. A very good recent study by anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli polled young Cambodian Muslims currently enrolled in Islamic schools as to whether there could be other, equally valid ways of practicing Islam besides their own. 99 percent said ‘no’. Many Muslims claim they cannot practice their religion freely and a substantial number (although still a minority) are undecided about whether or not it is permissible to use violence against civilians in the conflict in Southern Thailand.. This all points to trouble in the future.
Besides this influence of Islamic organizations into Cambodia, we need to add the still understudied and poorly understood issue of Cambodian Muslims who are studying abroad. With thousands of students in Thailand and Malaysia and hundreds in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, their return to Cambodia to assume positions of authority in the Muslim community will usher in changes that are difficult to predict.
Understanding this community and the future of terrorism in the region is going to require a lot more than simply following the money trail back to Riyadh. It’s going to require real appreciation of the many legitimate concerns that this community has as well as insight into how they see their decisions addressing these problems in both the short and long term. Cambodian Muslims, like Khmers, find their options restricted because on the one hand they have little political and economic power and on the other hand they have limited access to information that would put their own situation in a broader context and allow them to make better choices. My advice to the ambassador would be to consider how we can be more receptive to the needs of this community by talking about them as if they were real people, with hope, fears and aspirations and not merely potential terrorists. This would require much more research which could then inform American and Cambodian policy towards this community with a view to making them feel invested and accepted in the wider society.”