Features | Security | Southeast Asia

An American Mosque in Cambodia

Cambodia is a rare bright spot in the fight against Islamic radicalism. Thank an unusual combination of a local imam and US soft power.

Luke Hunt

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.

‘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.

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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.

‘Ten years ago, people didn’t understand. We didn’t understand,’ bin Idris says. ‘In the mosques we had divided communities arguing among themselves. Women were being coerced into wearing veils. There were different styles of prayers, it wasn’t Cham.’

The plight of the Cham was made even more difficult after it was learned that JI’s military leader, Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, had planned the October 2002 Bali bombing, which left more than 200 people dead, from a guest house built behind the Phnom Penh mosque.He reportedly intended to use Cambodia as a base for terrorist operations across Southeast Asia. Two years later, three men were jailed after a plot was discovered to blowup overseas embassies in Phnom Penh.

‘This wasn’t a very good time,’bin Idris says dryly.

Like Muslims in other parts of Southeast Asia, Chams traditionally follow a syncretic form of Islam that incorporates elements from Buddhism and pre-Islamic belief systems. But between 1998 and 2002, an estimated 40 percent of Chams had switched over to the more orthodox Dawa Tabligh and Wahhabi branches of Islam.

It’s an extraordinary number. Chams account for just 700,000—about 5 percent—of Cambodia's population of 13 million, and have long been victims of discrimination, making them ripe for outsiders bearing gifts and what at first seemed not unreasonable demands.

In the late 1970s, the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge came close to annihilating them. By the early 1990s, after three decades of civil war, there were just 20 mosques left in the country. And following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the Bali bombing, the Cham were again under suspicion simply for being Muslim. Allegations of police harassment and bullying weren’t unusual. By this point, the situation in Cambodiahad becomehighly combustible.

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Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed.

The US embassy took the lead with a proactive campaign that supported Cham traditions and helped build a bulwark against unwanted outside militants, an effort bin Idris praises.

‘The US embassy has helped us, the Cham community, a lot,’ he says. ‘They’ve helped so we can buy traditional clothes, and provided funds to help us study English and they have helped the poor and disabled people.’

‘The relationship is now much deeper. Before, the Muslim community here didn’t understand the Americans, but now it’s different. Not just here, it’s happening in other countries too.’

More importantly than this, though, is the fact that the in-house brawling over outside influences has abated, bin Idris says.He explains that although funds have continuedto come in from many countries, all of the assistance is vetted by the Cambodian government and the Ministry of Religion in conjunction with representatives from the Muslim Cham community. They meet three times a year.

‘No one comes to offer us aid and demands that we follow them. If they do, then we tell the government. Each country has to go through the government,’ he says.

He says that although some Cham children have still been sent to the Middle East for schooling, their curriculum and the Madrassas require government and community approval. Any acts of violence are spurned, he says, particularly terrorism committed in the name of Islam.

‘This,’ he says of suicide bombers and their ilk, ‘is the predicament of the individual. It’s not Islam.’

Still, some concerns remain.

Chhorn Eam, deputy minister for cults and religions, says relations with the Chams have normalized, although the government is still wary of militancy and potential terrorist acts given what has happened since 2001. He says Chams have been free to study outside the country in places like Saudi Arabia where they learn Arabic and how to recite the Koran.

‘Some come back with different beliefs such as using a piece of cloth to cover their face… What we are worried about is that they might bring something that would cause problems in general society and their communities,’ he says.

His sentiments were echoed by Police Lt. Gen. Hiue Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s security. He says many Chams were members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

‘There are no Islamic militants in Cambodia nor do Cham communities want any donations from the outside thatrequires them to become militants or separatists,’ he says. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that terrorists could use Cambodia as a hideout.

‘Terrorists could strike anywhere at any time in any country, if we are careless,’ he says. ‘We’ve always educated them (Cham) not to become extremists or militants or suicide bombers.’

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Given the extended reach of US influence in the area, Cham militancy seems unlikely. As bin Idris notes, many Cham teenagers dine at KFC and wear denim jeans. ‘We look American,’ he says.

In a final gesture, he points to the façade of the Mosque. It’s looking a little run down and bin Idris says he’d like to add an extension as his congregation grows.

‘If the embassy was to help, I’d be happy to call it the Washington Mosque.’