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The politics of prayer

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Kay Tith (second from the left) and other deputies of the religious leader, believe theirs is the only legitimate mosque. Charlotte Pert

The politics of prayer

In Kampong Chhnang, the creation of new mosques is fracturing an already small and vulnerable community of Imam Sann Muslims from within

The mosque in Andong Slar village is skeletal: a floor and twenty concrete pillars, their steel support rods jutting up towards the sky.

It’s been a year since construction halted. The initial money is gone and the villagers have no idea how to get more, or even how much they need – estimates for what it will cost to finish the building range from an additional $12,000 to $22,000.

Until the mosque is completed, the 70-odd families that live in the village are worshiping in a makeshift prayer room next to the construction site – a platform on stilts, sheltered from the monsoon rains by sheets of corrugated iron.

“We tried to build it by ourselves from selling vegetables,” said Kay Keu, looking out at the abandoned construction site. 86 years old, Kay Keu is the village leader and manager of the mosque project.

“During prayer time, we raise money from our villagers,” he explained. “They donate 500 riel or 2,000 riel depending on what they have.”

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It has cost $8,000 to build the foundations for the new mosque in Andong Slar. Villagers don’t know where more money will come from. Charlotte Pert

Money for new mosques in Cambodia is not necessarily hard to come by. Indeed, driving to Andong Slar village along National Highway 5, new buildings flash past: glittering domes, delicate minarets and elegantly arched facades.

But this funding, which comes primarily from wealthy donors abroad – Kuwait, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or the Arab Emirates – is not an option for Kay Keu’s half-built mosque.

Kay Keu, like the rest of the villagers in Andong Slar, is part of the Imam Sann community – a curious offshoot of Islam which mixes the lessons of the Quran with the teachings of a 19th-century religious leader, the mysterious Imam Sann. The Imam Sann are the smallest of Cambodia’s Muslim communities, and the only one that falls outside the authority of the country’s Mufti.

In Imam Sann villages, worship is done differently: even the most pious pray only once a week on a Friday, and without the need for ritual ablutions or call to prayer.

If it is completed, the Andong Slar mosque will look nothing like the decorative mosques on the highway. Its roof will be a flat slope, and its walls unadorned by Arabic calligraphy.

According to villagers, their unusual practices make aid harder to come by. The only potential donors who have offered to help with the cost of construction came with a condition: give up the quirks of the Imam Sann faith, and pray five times a day.

“We refused” said Kay Keu proudly, propped up against a pillar in the wall-less, makeshift mosque.

“This is our habit and tradition from ancient time. It is impossible to change it.”

A fragmenting community

At first glance, the plight of Andong Slar appears obvious: a village of impoverished, misunderstood cultural inbetweeners, isolated and ineligible for funding because of the principles of their practice.

But the question of why over a hundred people are currently preying in a windy hut is a vexed one.

The Imam Sann community is small – numbering around 32,000 at an optimistic count – but Andong Slar sits at the heart of it: one of a cluster of half a dozen villages in O’Russey commune, Kampong Chnang, that are devout followers of the faith.

This clutch of quiet villages is also the community’s spiritual heartland.

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Sou Ly (left) funded the second mosque through donations. Charlotte Pert

Less than 500 metres down the road stands the Keo Sar O’Russey mosque – the Imam Sann’s oldest standing meeting place, and the home of their royally appointed leader, the Okna Khnour Kay Toam.

For almost sixty years, the O’Russey mosque was the hub for worship in this tight-knit community, whose villages sit so snugly that the boundaries between them are unclear.

Then around 2009, something changed. Led by an old devotee of the faith called Sou Ly, the village of Chan Kiek splintered off. Seeking funding from the community and from wealthy private donors, they built a new mosque – only 450 metres from the old one in O’Russey. Over 200 families, almost half the community, switched their place of worship. During the several years it took for Sou Ly and the other villagers to raise the necessary funds and complete construction, they prayed in a neighbouring shed.

When the community elders in Angong Slar village followed suit in 2013, they took another 70 or 80 families with them.

After years of relative stability, the explanation for this succession of rifts is not easy to fathom.

Sitting under the ornate chandeliers of his new mosque in Chan Kiek village, Sou Ly said that his decision had been prompted by purely practical considerations.

“The villagers wanted the new mosque because it is crowded [at the old mosque]. At Ramadan time, all the people went there and there was no space,” he said.

He added that although “Oknha”, as the religious leader Okhna Khnour Kay Toam is known, had refused to set foot inside the new building, the Chan Kiek villagers were still devout followers of their sprititual leader.

“We do not run away from him,” he insisted.

At Andong Slar’s makeshift mosque, octogenarian Kay Keu was equally quick to play down the break off that he had prompted.

“It’s easier for old people to travel to,” he said of the new location, motioning to the aged village committee gathered around him.

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Kay Keu and other villagers in Andong Slar use this makeshift prayer room while they wait for the mosque to be built. Charlotte Pert

But Kay Keu admitted that there had been a spat that had prompted the hasty decision to depart: his own granddaughters wedding, where the partying had gone on for half an hour longer than permitted.

Another committee member, 59-year-old Su Heng, chipped in he thought it had been more like three hours over the agreed upon time, but added that it shouldn’t have mattered anyway. “Our teens now like to be happy. They sing and dance,” he explained. “This is misconduct in our tradition, but for state law is not wrong. This is the modern time.”

The Centre Cannot Hold

The Keo Sar Orussey Mosque is an old, airy building with fading wooden shutters and decorative floor tiles that date from the 1960s.

With the royally appointed Okhna increasingly frail, the mosque’s most visible face is now Kay Tith, the religious leader’s 82-year-old deputy, who wears the white clothes and headband common to all community elders.

Kay Tith’s position on the new mosques is unequivocal. “Here is the most important mosque of Cambodia, with recognition from the king,” he said, decrying the upstarts as illegal. “We are breaking the union. It is not good.”

Kay Tith is on firm ground with his legal objections. According to religious law in Cambodia, a new mosque cannot be built less than two kilometers away from an existing one, unless getting to the first mosque would mean crossing a wide river.

Andong Slau or Chan Kiek villages fall about a kilometer and a half short of meeting this requirement, and the Ministry of Cult and Religion has offered full support to the Oknha’s demands to not legitimize the new buildings – a ruling with little practical import.

But the worries that consume the Oknha, Kay Tith, and the other community elders at O’Russey, go beyond bureaucratic wrangling.

Fears are that the once unquestionable authority of the Oknha is coming unstuck.

“They consider themselves as Imam Sann, but they do not listen to their leader,” said Kay Tith of the self-styled leaders of the second and third mosques. “Who appointed them? They are like stealers of our style.”

Already, the Imam Sann are a community under pressure. Migration to cities or to abroad is shrinking their villages, and the number of people familiar with the Cham script is on the decline – a trend that the US Embassy has been trying to reverse with recent grants for cultural preservation. In some communities – including one village within Kampong Chnang itself – whole neighbourhoods are abandoning the faith, converting to orthodox Islam and reaping the rewards of funding that the Andong Slar villagers have refused.

The O’Russey elders do not accuse the leaders of the two new mosques of accepting tied funding from abroad, or of compromising their religious principles.

Instead, the impression is of a community divided by a cocktail of very human foibles: pride, grudge bearing and opportunism.

Kay Tith sees Sou Ly’s decision to break away in 2009 as the genesis of the fracturing.

“The third mosque came from the second one,” he asserted.

“Mr Sou Ly is the one who pushed villagers to create the third one and to not believe Okhna.”

Whispers in the village, which Sou Ly refuses to confirm, suggest that it was on being overlooked for promotion at the O’Russey mosque that he decided to make the split.

Elders from the new mosques were quick to emphasise that not much had changed socially, with villagers continuing to attend weddings and other non-religious festivities across community divides.

But Kay Tith did not agree. “My relatives who belong to the second mosque dare not come to meet us because they’re afraid that their mosque chief will be angry with them,” he said.

Opportunity costs

According to Alberto Pérez-Pereiro, a researcher who has been involved with the Imam Sann community since 2004, the idea that changes in the fabric of society could be wrought by a handful of individuals isn’t necessarily fanciful. “When you have a small group of people, people’s personalities really matter,” he pointed out.

Pérez-Pereiro said that while it was clear there was a transition going on around O’Russey, he didn’t feel it was his place to comment on specifics. “If they feel the need to have an internal conversation, that’s something they need to be able to do without involving others in their decisions,” he said.

But he did point out that the situation should be viewed in terms of opportunity costs. “There’s a question of why it’s happening, but also of why it’s possible,” he said. “[If you’re] splitting off you need resources to do it.”

It’s an explanation that resonates with Sou Ly in Chan Kiek village. He sees his new mosque as only fitting, given the recent improvement in the villager’s standard of living.

“We were never well off like today with cars and motorbikes,” he said. “Before we were poor.”

At the O’Russey mosque, the hope is that social cleavages will not result in a permanent fragmentation of an already weak cultural community.

“The Imam San will lose when there is no Oknha, because of the break up and the young generations who do not care about the tradition anymore,” predicted Kay Tith, whose worries have increased in line with the apparent frailty of the existing Oknha.

Kay Tith said that while he would never condone the new mosques, he hoped the missing villages would see the error of their ways.

“The door still open to welcome them back.”

Additional reporting by Mao Monkolransey


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