In Cambodia, Muslims mark 'holiest night' of Ramadan

As the month draws to a close, Cham Muslims reflect on meaning and place in society
In Cambodia, Muslims mark 'holiest night' of Ramadan

Cambodian Muslims gather for an Iftar break-fast meal at Nurunnaim Mosque in Phnom Penh's Russei Keo district. (Photo by Abby Seiff

By 5 pm on July 2, the streets of Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district had grown quiet. It was the 27th night of Ramadan and, this year, the date of Laylat al-Qadr — the holiest night in the Islamic calendar.

Mohamad Nor put away his cellphone and surveyed his grandchildren careening across the tiled driveway.

"No one will talk to you now," he predicted. "Everyone is exhausted."

For nearly a month, Cambodia’s Cham Muslims — like their counterparts the world over — have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. No food touches their lips from dawn until dusk; efforts are turned toward charity and thoughts toward prayer.

"Ramadan is the best month in the year. We purify our hearts and stop doing bad things," said Amry Patry, a 21-year-old student studying business management.

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Among Cambodia’s predominantly Buddhist population, Muslims make up approximately 4 percent of the country’s 15 million people.

While that makes them one of the largest minority groups, they remain very much a minority. Though things are changing, Chams tend to be poorer and have fewer opportunities than their Khmer counterparts. Even among educated Khmers, superstitions regarding Chams and their ability to conduct "black magic" persist.

In some ways, the community is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge period. An estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, overwork, and execution between 1975 and 1979 under the brutal, Maoist-inspired regime. While that represents nearly a quarter of the population, Chams — along with other religious and ethnic minorities — were particularly devastated.

It is estimated that upwards of half the Muslim population was killed; many believe the regime targeted Chams for mass extermination. Those who survived recalled being force-fed pork, stripped of their headdresses and, eventually, watching their neighbors being rounded up and executed. Nearly every religious leader and scholar was killed.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian Islam — which had begun on a globalizing course in the 1950s and 1960s — began to rapidly change.

Money flowed in from South Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf States to support the rebuilding of schools, mosques and social services.

Scholarships and charitable organizations proliferated. In Cham communities, headdresses have become the norm, and niqabs not uncommon.

Farina So, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia who heads the Cham oral history project, has argued convincingly that far from ‘stealing identity’, the Islamic shift allowed a group that had recently been targeted for genocide the ability to feel part of a powerful, global network.

Today, the stretch of those foreign donors can be seen in nearly every Muslim community. Local mosques dotting the roads of Russei Keo sport signs highlighting their benefactors.

Patry, the business student, lives in a dorm run by an Emeriti charitable group. The organization provides full scholarships, food and housing for 100 students from poor backgrounds. Patry plans to use her Phnom Penh education to establish a school back in her home village.

"One duty of Ramadan is to share," she tells us, before excusing herself to prepare for an examination the next morning.

Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey

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