World Bulletin/News Desk
Chan Kiek village’s retired Imam sits in a traditional wooden stilt house among emerald rice paddies, his scrawny chickens pecking around the muddy yard.
It is the last day before Eid and Meh Sem, 79 - dressed in a sarong and a white turban - and his wife have been trying to fast... although they have broken down a couple of times, he admits with a laugh.
“Even if my family doesn’t fast strictly, we do the Iftar every night,” he said over syrupy palm cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves. Other dishes include a lightly spiced coconut milk curry, beef, rice, and salted fish.
Sem and his family are among the country’s 400,000-strong Cham Muslim minority, originally believed to have come to Cambodia from the ancient kingdom of Champa in what is now Vietnam centuries ago.
They celebrate Eid Wednesday, many returning to their villages to fast with relatives and freinds.
Specifically, Sem’s family and the other Muslims in the province refer to themselves as Cham Bani and practice a syncretic form of Islam quite different from that of Cambodia's other sects who they see as having "modernized" - those who have adopted the culture of the Arab world, leaving behind some of the mystical or animistic beliefs still maintained by the Cham Bani.
Cham researcher and scholar Leb Ke told the Anadolu Agency that unlike other Cham, the country’s approximately 15,000 Cham Bani pray only once a week—on Fridays—except during Ramadan when they pray once daily.
He said that because of these differences, other Cham Muslims—who pray five times a day—see the Cham Bani as un-Islamic.
The Cham Bani, meanwhile, consider themselves the original Cham Muslims,
“When people follow ‘modern’ Islam, our culture is abandoned, so this is a major problem for Cham in Cambodia,” Ke explained, adding that more and more Cham Bani are "converting" to a more Middle Eastern style of Islam—headscarves for the women, Arabic instead of Cham music, and scholarships to countries such as Saudi Arabia.
“People need to be reminded of their Cham heritage and their own language and read and write in their own alphabet so that it is not lost to the world,” said Ke, adding that Cham, while they pray in Arabic, have learnt Quranic verses by rote and don’t actually understand what they mean.
While there are adaptations of the Quran into Cham, many Cham—who are mostly rice farmers - are illiterate, he noted.
Retired Imam Sem cannot read or speak Arabic but he greets guests with “As-salamu alaykum” and has been to Saudi Arabia, travelling in 2000 to Mecca for the Hajj with a group of Cham officials—an experience he described as “surprising.”
“It was an unusual experience,” he said. “We walked around the black stone, but in some places we had to run—I don’t know why.”
While taking pilgrimage to Mecca at least once is one of the pillars of faith, Sem said he did not find the holy city especially spiritual.
“That was a physical place, but here,” he said, gesturing to the village, “the Bani also live Islam and follow Allah.”
Like many Cham Muslims, Sem said he suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge—the ultra-Maoist rebels who seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and whose 4-year rule saw 1.7 million Cambodians murdered or die from starvation.
Under the Communist regime all religion—the main faith being Buddhism - was banned, and places of worship and religious documents destroyed. The Chams were particularly targeted and at least a third of their population was killed during Khmer Rouge rule, according to international human rights organization Minority Rights Group International.
Two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are presently on trial in the capital Phnom Penh, a United Nations-backed tribunal charging them with committing genocide against the Cham people, among other war crimes.
“I had to do hard labor,” Sem recalled of life under the Khmer Rouge. “We really suffered because we were forced to change religion. And we were so hungry, I’ll always remember how hungry we were.”
Sem’s wife died sick and weak from starvation just ten days after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled.
“I also lost one son during the Khmer Rouge. A son of 15. He got a bad fever and died,” he said hesitantly, staring at his hands, examining the white age spots on them.
Soyas, 21 - Sem’s youngest child with his current wife - is of a luckier generation. In her lifetime, religious tolerance has been enshrined in the Cambodian constitution and Cham Muslims face little discrimination, some even holding high-ranking government positions.
Soyas—dressed like many Cambodian student in jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with an English language slogan (in her case, the word “Lover”) - is studying banking at university in the capital, but has returned to the countryside to celebrate the last three days of Ramadan with her family as well as Eid.
“For me I only fast for a few days, not the full month,” she said in halting English. “I can read Cham language and I live in Phnom Penh but I come back for Ramadan.”
At university she says she feels a fully integrated member of Cambodian society, with Buddhists and Christians as well as other Muslims among her friends.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen held his first ever Iftar for members of the Muslim community in Phnom Penh, where he dismissed allegations made in a video by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that the radical group had Cambodians among them.
“It is not applicable to Cambodian Muslims. I am a Buddhist person and I do not accept the use of the words ‘Muslim extremists,’” he said.
Cham researcher Leb Ke says that Cambodian Muslims know little of the troubles in the Middle East, even headline news such as Israel's bombardment of Gaza.
“People don't know about the news on the Middle East. They hear from the Imam, but the Imam does not watch the news - he gets it from the network of mosques from other countries,” he said.
Ke warned that the Cham Bani sect is losing members to "modern" Islam all the time, many forgetting their roots.
Middle Eastern countries often fund the building of mosques in Cambodia, give scholarships and donate gifts such as dates to the Muslim population during Ramadan.
“After Bani go to study in Saudi,” they come back with changed ideas, he said.