Chams Not Integrated into Society: US Report

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The Al-Serkal mosque near Boeung Kak in Phnom Penh is the largest mosque in Cambodia. KT/Aisha Dawn

Cham Muslims are not fully integrated into Cambodian society and many Cambodian people continue to think Chams are practitioners of “black magic,” according to a report on religious freedom released last week by the US State Department.
 
“The Cham Muslim community continued to face barriers to full integration into society,” said the Cambodia 2015 International Religious Freedom Report.
 
“In addition to poverty, isolation, language and inadequate access to education and health services, some members of the majority Buddhist community and other minority ethnic groups reportedly continued to view the Cham with suspicion and superstition as purported practitioners of ‘black magic’,” it said.
 
In response to the report, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told Khmer Times that US reports were not based on facts but were rather a kind of personal opinion about what happens in Cambodia.
 
“It’s a kind of incitement to religious discrimination among Cambodians. The report was not based on actual facts. It is an opinion. In contrast, Cham Muslims and Cambodian people are living in almost absolute harmony in Cambodia as well as in the region,” he said.
 
He added that by following protocol, Cambodian people always call Cham Muslims “my Khmer Islam brothers and sisters.” This fact alone, he said, could explain that in Cambodia, there is no difference between Chams and the rest of the people living in the country – they have the same rights and they share the same fate.
 
“There is no difference between Cham Muslims and the rest of us in this country. The truth is many Cham Muslims have been elected and became lawmakers in parliament; and many others are working as high-ranking government officials in a lot of ministries,” added the spokesman.
 
Concerning the view that Cham Muslims are practitioners of “black magic,” Mr. Siphan rejected the claim and said only people who live on the street say that while the average Cambodian person would never say such a thing.
 
Ahmad Yahya, a Cham Muslim who is also a personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, previously said that in Cambodia, Cham Muslims and Cambodian Buddhists live together in absolute harmony.
 
“There is no discrimination, we are very happy. Cham Muslims have 500 mosques. Buddhist religion is Buddhist religion, and our religion is our religion. We follow the teaching of the Quran, and we do not interfere,” said Mr. Yahya.
 
According to So Farina, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cham Muslims and Cambodian people experienced the same suffering so they understand each other more than before. This fact alone makes them unite together, she said.
 
“If you look at the history of Chams and Cambodians, they consider themselves as one. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, they all suffered. After the Khmer Rouge, they united. It’s a survivors’ identity,” said Ms. Farina.
 
Abdul Kadir bin Harun, who spent seven years in Saudi Arabia at the Islamic University of Madinah, agreed with the fact that in Cambodia, Cham Muslims and the rest of the Cambodian people get along very well – there is no conflict of faith at all.
 
“Even though the Khmer people have different religions, unlike many other countries around the world, they are tolerant and have solidarity. Khmer Muslims have walked in the right way…we use the word ‘peaceful’ at every step,” said Mr. bin Harun.
 
Another negative point raised by the report was that the Cambodian government promotes only the teaching of Buddhism in public schools. Other forms of religious teaching were not allowed in public schools, according to the report.

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