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Southeast Asia

Cambodia meets Islam head on
By B Raman

Cambodian authorities on Friday announced the arrest of two Thais and an Egyptian on suspicion of having links with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an extremist organization of Southeast Asia that is alleged to be associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. The JI has been linked by the Indonesian authorities with last October's terrorist explosions in Bali.

The Cambodian authorities also ordered the expulsion from their country of 28 teachers originating in Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen and Egypt, along with their families, making a total of 47 persons. They were reported to be searching for another foreigner, described as a Yemeni, on a charge of links with the JI.

According to the Cambodian authorities, all these persons were associated with a school run by an organization called the Umm al-Qura (UAQ), which has also been ordered to close down its activities, including the school. The arrested Egyptian, Esam Mohammad Khidr Ali, has been described as the chief of the UAQ. In addition to Phnom Penh, it had two branches in the provinces, which have also been ordered to close down.

Media reports say that these actions were taken on the basis of intelligence received from the United States about the association of the UAQ and the arrested individuals with the JI and the likely threat of a terrorist action by them during the meetings of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the ASEAN Regional Forum member countries at Phnom Penh from June 16-21. General Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, is among those expected to attend these meetings.

Cambodia has an estimated total population of about 12 million, of whom more than 11 million are Buddhists. The rest belong to Islam, Christianity, the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion and the Bahai faith. Islam is the religion of the Cham and Malay minorities. Its adherents are mostly found in Phnom Penh and in the rural fishing villages of Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang and Kampot provinces. About 90 percent of the Muslims belong to the Malay-influenced Shafi branch (Sunnis). The rest are Saudi-influenced Wahhabis, adherents of an indigenous branch called the Iman-San and the Quadianis of Indo-Pakistan origin.

Before the Khmer Rouge seized power, the total number of Muslims in the country was estimated at about 200,000. Their number came down because of persecution by the communists, with those who could escaping massacres by the communists by fleeing the country. There was an increase in the number of Muslims after the end of the communist rule, but no estimate of their present number is available.

Those who survived the communist persecution and stayed on in the country found themselves forced to abandon their religious practices. The Khmer Rouge destroyed about 130 mosques and the persecution of the mullahs resulted in a steep decline in their number from more than 100 to about 20.

Since the end of the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, there has been an attempt by Islamic organizations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to remove the lingering influence of communism from the minds of the Muslims of Cambodia and to promote a resurgence of Islam. Among the organizations playing an active role in this connection are the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) of Pakistan and Umm al-Qura University of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The TJ, which came into existence in India during British rule, describes its objective as to make all Muslims good Muslims by improving their knowledge and understanding of the Holy Koran and to remove sectarian differences in the religion. The headquarters of the TJ are still in India, where it continues to follow its original objectives and has avoided getting involved in any extremist activities.

However, since the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Pakistan branch of the TJ has been increasingly associated with the activities of terrorist organizations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, all of which are members of bin Laden's International Islamic Front.

Despite this association, which is more clandestine than open, the TJ, until a few years ago, was not viewed with suspicion by many countries of the world. The preachers of the TJ had, therefore, no difficulty in getting visas for undertaking visits to other countries for teaching the Holy Koran to the local Muslims and for training mullahs. Taking advantage of this, the above-mentioned terrorist organizations started sending their cadres as members of the teaching teams of the TJ to other countries for establishing clandestine links with local Muslim organizations and inducing them to take to jihad against the United States and Israel and their non-Muslim oppressors. After this, some countries in Africa, Russia and China stopped issuing visas to the TJ teaching teams.

The US, too, has started taking the TJ more seriously since the arrests of some local residents of Yemeni origin near New York last year who had allegedly been to Afghanistan. It was reported that the investigation brought out that they had initially gone to Pakistan, ostensibly to attend the annual convention of the TJ, and from there went to Afghanistan.

The TJ also provides financial assistance to Muslim students from other countries for studying in the madrassas (religious schools) of Pakistan. Nearly 400 students from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand were studying in Pakistani madrassas last year with scholarships provided by the TJ, which recruits students not only during the visits of its teaching teams to Southeast Asia, but also from among the Muslim nationals of the Southeast Asian countries working in the Persian Gulf. They are persuaded to go to Pakistan for jihadi training in the madrassas, after which they go back to the Gulf to resume their work. During their annual visits to their home towns for their vacation, they are encouraged to spread the ideology of the terrorist organizations.

Many Muslim youth from Cambodia go to Kelantan in Malaysia for religious studies and are often contacted there by touring TJ teams, which persuade them to become better Muslims by studying in the madrassas of Pakistan. It is estimated that every year about 400 Cambodian Muslims go to Malaysia and another 80 to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for religious studies.

Retired Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir, who was director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the first tenure of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan (1990-93), is an active member of the TJ. He functioned as its emir while heading the ISI as well as after he was sacked by the Pakistani government under US pressure in 1993. In a defamation suit filed by him against a Pakistani newspaper, which is being heard by a Pakistani court, he has narrated how he had organized a secret airlift of weapons to Bosnian Muslims, which, according to him, angered the US against him.

After he was sacked from the ISI, Nasir used to visit Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, with TJ teams to promote Islamic resurgence. Many Saudi organizations, including the UAQ University of Saudi Arabia, have also been providing funds to the mosques and religious schools of Cambodia to promote Islamic resurgence. But, while the TJ projects itself as free of any sectarian preferences, the UAQ and other Saudi organizations want to encourage the spread of orthodox Wahhabism among the Muslims of Cambodia, in order to increase their number.

The campaign for the promotion of Islamic resurgence in Cambodia consists of activities such as construction of new mosques (their number is estimated at about 150), renovation of mosques damaged during communist rule, spread of Islamic education, training new mullahs, encouraging the observance of Islamic practices, teaching the Arabic language etc. The Wahhabi clerics of Pakistan, who were close to the Taliban, were influenced by the Taliban's campaign against the Buddhist influence in Afghanistan, which led to the demolition of the historic Buddhist statue at Bamiyan in 2001. They carry their anti-Buddhist propaganda with them wherever they go. Cambodia is no exception. They call for removing what they describe as the distorting influence of not only communism, but also Buddhism and Hinduism from the minds of Cambodian Muslims. This is because it is alleged that many Cham Muslims, in addition to attending prayers in the mosques, continue to worship Buddha and the Hindu deities at home and visit Hindu shrines in Angkor Wat for prayers.

The indicators until last year were that the main objective of all these Saudi and Pakistani-assisted activities was to reintroduce and strengthen orthodoxy in the Muslim religion in Cambodia and not to instigate them to take to jihadi terrorism of the bin Laden kind. Despite this, foreign intelligence agencies were nervous over the unchecked activities of foreign Muslim radical elements in Cambodia. That this nervousness was also shared by some people in Cambodia, even local Muslims, was evident from an interview given by Ahmad Yahya, one of the prominent Muslims of Cambodia, who is also a member of parliament, to the New York Times (December 23, 2002). He said: "I told the [US] ambassador, don't worry about our people. Our people I can guarantee. But the Bangladeshis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Saudis and people like that who come here, I cannot guarantee."

The arrests and expulsions ordered by the Cambodian government and the closure of the Saudi-funded Islamic school show that this nervousness was well founded.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (ret), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and presently director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai; former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com. He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August, 1994.
 
Jun 3, 2003





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