Isolated Muslim communities: Do you know the Cham Muslims of Vietnam?
- 20 February 2017
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While travelling in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, I was surprised to find Muslims in an isolated village near the Cambodian border on the banks of the Mekong River. Arriving by a small boat, the group I was travelling with disembarked one-by-one on a narrow, half-rotten wooden bridge.
We were met by barefoot children trying to sell us snacks, and they followed us into the village. A group of men wearing batik lungis (long skirts with a knot in their waist) and white skull caps sat nearby, all of them in deep conversation with an elder in white robes and a turban.
The houses were built on 2-to-3-metre wood or concrete stilts to prevent flooding by the Mekong River. Beneath one of them, at the entrance to the village, weaved fabrics were set up for display, while hijab-wearing women demonstrated the weaving techniques of the Cham people and showed off their tribal patterns.
From the 2nd to the 17th century, the lands of South Vietnam belonged to the Cham Kingdom, ethnic descendants of Malay Polynesians. The prosperity of the Kingdom primarily came from maritime slave and sandalwood trade, which may have influenced the beginnings of the Islamic conversion all the way back in the 11th century. Officially, the Cham King converted in the 17th century and spread Islamic teachings to his people in the southern regions before the Vietnamese dynasty conquered the land in the same century.
The invasion and defeat might explain why Islamic teachings didn’t reach the Cham people in the more centralized regions of Vietnam, which today are predominantly Hindu or Buddhist. After the invasion of the South, most Cham Muslims fled to Cambodia and landed in what is called Kampong Cham, which translates literally as “Port of the Cham”, or to Terengganu in Malaysia. Pockets remained near the Mekong River in Vietnam.
From the ground entrance near the river bank, the tour guide led us up a staircase to join the wooden gangways that joined most of the stilt houses together. Every wood board squeaked as we walked from gangway to gangway, and as we passed the doorways into the sheds, a woman or a child would occasionally peek outside to have a look at the foreigners visiting their village.
The villages in the area function with somewhere between three and four hundred citizens. Most men in the village are either fishermen or work at the nearby fish farms along the Mekong River. The women mostly work within the community producing unique Cham patterned fabrics or simply work as vendors at the local market. Like many other minorities in Vietnam, the Cham Muslims are economically depressed, and when they join the workforce they are kept in low-income jobs. The women are socially forced to remove their hijabs to avoid discrimination, and the isolation of their community makes it challenging to practice their belief when they need to work outside the community.
Our group entered the asphalted main road from the village, and just across the street, a newly renovated masjid and accompanying madrassa stood clean and bright, reflecting the morning sun. For maintaining and rebuilding the masjids, the Cham Muslims are heavily depending on support from the outside. Most contributions come from Malaysia and Indonesia, and it is also there that scholars in Vietnam get their education and degrees. Copying and distributing the Quran and Islamic scriptures are informally prohibited in Vietnam, and this has sometimes resulted in merges between Buddhist rituals and Islamic teachings.
The Muslim population in Vietnam is estimated to be around 65,000 citizens, and the majority are the Cham Muslims. The second largest group are ethnic Vietnamese converts, and though Islam is slowly rising in the country, the Cham Muslims feel disconnected with the ethnic Vietnamese as fragments of resentment between the once-rulers and the conquerors are still felt on both sides.