CAMBODIAN MUSLIMS MAKE UP ONLY 4 percent of Cambodia’s roughly 15 million people. In general, and excluding the Khmer Rouge years, they have lived peacefully with the country’s Buddhist major it for centuries. Although both faith communities treat each other with fairness and equality, some Buddhists remain prejudiced because they do not understand Islamic practices very well.
Interfaith marriages, while still relatively uncommon, are apparently increasing the number of converts, even if there is no record on the con version. After marriage, some converts face a degree of discrimination from both sets of parents, other family members and even friends due to the convert’s decision to follow a different culture and religious belief system.
Rohany Abdullah, 23, a former Buddhist woman named Dy Leakhena from Kandal province, told our reporter, “It was not hard for me to practice [Islam] and marry a Muslim. I did it voluntarily. But it was a bit hard for my parents and friends, because they feel uncomfortable with Islamic practices. Some of my non-Muslim friends seem to discriminate against me because of the hijab and my new dietary restrictions. Sometimes they don’t even want to talk with me after realizing that I have converted.”
Her husband Kob Safy, 45, from Prey Veng province and now residing in Phnom Penh, also faced problems with his new in-laws. “I decided to marry her because of love and her promise to follow me. I tried very hard to teach her. Now we live with our families happily. My wife can speak Cham and practices very good Islam. In my village, many men like me have married converts.”
Despite this discrimination, the teachings of both religions accept intermarriage. Islam allow such a marriage on the condition that the Buddhist spouse converts, whereas Buddhism has no such condition. But the Muslim community worries that converts don’t practice good Islam due to their low knowledge and their spouse’s own ignorance. Most Muslims say that they would prefer their children to marry within the faith, but would accept the marriage if both individuals loved each other and the Buddhist spouse agreed to convert.
Unfortunately, even though the number of converts is growing, there are no centers where they can learn Islam or receive a certificate of conversion. Those who want to marry a Muslim just learn Islam from one another in the village or from their spouse. The Cambodian Muslim Media Center is now offering some printed materials for them and providing online Khmer-language materials for those who want to learn more about Islam.
Recently, a remarkable village has appeared in Kampong Speu province. Kwan village, also known as Muallaf village, contains more than 50 families in which one parent is a convert.
All of them have moved there from different provinces. Ms. Math Sarah, an Islamic teacher who is helping them to understand Islam told our reporter, “I am very proud that, despite my own struggles and those of my husband, most of the new Muslims are now good practitioners of Islam. Some can even make the adhan and recite parts of the Quran.” Sarah added that at first she had a very difficult time teaching them about Islam.
The converts and their Buddhist families often maintain good relations. A Buddhist man from Kandal province, whose son converted and married a Muslim woman, answered our question on the condition of anonymity, “It doesn’t matter that my son married a girl of another belief. Islam and Buddhism are not very different, for both religions teach us to do good deeds. We live in the same country and have almost the same customs. I still consider him as my son, even though he is away from me and practices Islam. He sometimes bring his wife and kids to visit me, and I sometimes visit them. I understand that he’s abandoned some religious practices because he now believes in Islam, but I don’t mind that.”
Research conducted in 2010 by Ysa Osman, a Cham Muslim researcher, found that intermarriage rates among Cambodia’s Cham community has slowly increased over the past 36 years: from 0.45 percent (62 of 13,651 couples) in 1970 to 3.5 percent (526 of 15,045 couples) in 2006. He offers the following reasons for this growth: the integration of both faith communities, school enrollment, increased travel, opportunities for entertainment, the introduction of new technology and some other culture changes as regards clothing. His research also indicates that 88 percent of the intermarried couples practice Islam, 10.3 percent practice Buddhism and 1.7 percent practice their original religion.
H.E. Sos Mousine, secretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion and head of the Cambodian Muslim Students Association, recently told a local newspaper that the number of Muslims in the kingdom is growing village by village and conceded that sometimes conversion through marriage is a factor.
But such intermarriages are nothing new in Cambodia. Ordinary people have always co verted, and history records that three Khmer kings married Cham Muslim women.
Source: Islamic Horizons Magazine