Haji Yusof bin Idris lives opposite the riverfront in Phnom Penh, on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River from the Tonle Sap. He’s the unassuming imam of the modest Alazhar Mosque, which boasts about 2,600 followers. He’s also a pivotal player in the West’s counter-terrorism effort in Southeast Asia.
Real victories have often been elusive in the so-called War on Terror since it was launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.From the Taliban battlefields of Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in Iraq toJemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the Southern Philippines and Indonesia, the results have been mixed at best.
But in unlikely corners of the globe, smaller fights have been fought and are actually being won. Among them is Cambodia, a country whose recent political history had placed it on the least likely list of jihad producing nations.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘It’s good, the situation, we understand now,’ says bin Idris, who has played a key role in improving relations between the Cambodian government and Western countries that not that long ago had grown deeply suspicious about the arrival of orthodox Wahhabism and Dawa Tabligh into local Muslim Cham communities.
Flanked by senior members of his congregation, he chooses his words carefully. ‘We work closely with the authorities to protect our community from bad influences,’he says.
Western intelligence sources say that at one point Cambodia was an arsenal for sale. Tamil Tigers—and indeed most other would-be regional rebels—would dine at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club before deciding on their weapons of choice.
The lawless thrived on impunity, and amid all this lived a significant Muslim population that had been targeted for proselytizing by Middle East Wahhabis whose code was the virtual antithesis of the moderate, maternal brand of Islam that was traditionally practiced by Cambodia’s Cham.
Bin Idris lets out an audible sigh when recounting those days, as the country struggled to recover after decades of war and insurgency. Cham communities were building separate mosques and fighting among themselves. Outsiders were feared. Mothers effectively accused Saudi missionaries of stealing fatherless children to be reared by Madrassas in the Middle East.