Israeli proposal to quiet call to prayer draws Muslims' ire

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2016 3:10 PM
Israeli proposal to quiet call to prayer draws Muslims' ire

JERUSALEM (AP) — A proposal to make mosques reduce the loudspeaker volume of their call to prayer has sparked an uproar among Israel's Muslims, underscoring their fraught relationship with the country's Jewish majority.

Supporters of the bill, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have painted it as a matter of quality of life. But it has deepened a sense among the Arab minority that it is being increasingly marginalized by his hard-line government.

"The call to prayer came before the racists. The call to prayer will remain after the racists," said Ayman Odeh, head of a joint list of Arab parties in parliament.

The bill, which received initial support from a committee of Israeli ministers this week, proposes to limit the volume of public address systems of all houses of prayer in Israel.

But the bill's sponsor, a lawmaker from a nationalist Jewish religious party, made clear the target is mosque loudspeakers, and it has been dubbed the "muezzin bill," referring to the man who delivers the call to prayer.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day, beginning around 5 a.m. In Israel, the call to prayer is often loud enough to wake up residents in Jewish neighborhoods or towns who live in close proximity to Muslim communities.

"I cannot count the times, they are simply too numerous, that citizens have turned to me from all parts of Israeli society, from all religions, with complaints about the noise," Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week.

"Israel is a country that respects freedom of religion for all faiths. Israel is also committed to defending those who suffer from the loudness of the excessive noise of the announcements," he added.

But Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel see the initiative as yet another affront by an increasingly hostile Israeli society and leadership.

Arabs make up one fifth of Israel's citizenry, but they are generally poorer and less educated than Jews and suffer from discrimination and substandard public services. Some politicians have questioned their loyalty to the state.

On election day last year, Netanyahu galvanized his hawkish supporters by warning that "Arab voters are going in droves to the polls." The comments drew accusations of racism, and Netanyahu later apologized.

Some detractors have said the bill is unnecessary, since Israel already has rules regulating excessive noise. Still, it has garnered support from many secular liberals who normally are at odds with Netanyahu's conservative government.

Zvi Barel of the liberal Haaretz newspaper said he would support efforts to limit the place of religion in the Israeli public sphere if the bill wasn't discriminatory.

"Israeli liberals, whether Jewish or Arab, can't support this excellent bill, because it is intended to harm Muslims," he wrote in an op-ed.

A planned vote on Wednesday was blocked after ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers raised concerns that it could also affect the sirens that announce the start of the Jewish Sabbath and holidays in many communities.

"I think the whole law is unnecessary," Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Israeli Army Radio Wednesday, adding that he would support an amended bill that made an exception for Jewish sirens. A ministerial committee will revisit the bill.

Netanyahu has claimed that many European cities and Muslim countries place limits on loudspeaker volume.

In Ireland, Muslims seeking to build mosques must agree that there will be no public call to prayer. Local Muslim leaders have accepted the restriction, citing religious teachings on showing respect for neighbors, and more than a dozen mosques have been built since 1996.

In Germany, only about 30 of the 160 official mosques have a call to prayer, according to the DPA news agency. While residents often complain, authorities say it is covered by the right to religious freedom, though still subject to general laws against making excessive noise.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany and various far-right parties have tried to exploit the issue, so far to little avail. Yet the party has done very well in local elections by campaigning against Islam and is surging as the country heads into a major election year in 2017.

In Britain, local city and town councils mediate occasional disputes over early morning prayer calls. There is an online petition in support of allowing areas with high Muslim populations to have "a loud call for prayer" at least three times a day, but it has not yet generated the 100,000 electronic signatures required to put it before Parliament.

While France has no ban, French mosques don't sound public calls to prayer, apparently out of respect to the country's secular traditions.

Likewise, very few mosques in the U.S. blast a call to prayer. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said most American mosques are not located in the heart of Muslim communities. "Even if they broadcast it, the likelihood is that people are not close enough to hear it," he said.

Dawud Walid, director of CAIR's Michigan chapter, said the call to prayer rings out from some mosques in Detroit and the suburbs of Hamtramck and Dearborn, all with large Muslim populations. In a 1979 decision, a Detroit judge ruled a mosque had a constitutional right to broadcast its prayer call.

Loud calls to prayer are ubiquitous across the Middle East.

Pakistan bans its Ahmadiyya community, who are reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics, from broadcasting the call to prayer. It also prevents religious leaders from blaring their sermons, fearing incitement.

Egypt has attempted to install a system where mosques would use a simultaneous, recorded call to prayer. But the proposal has struggled to get off the ground. Officials say the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which looks after mosques, is negotiating the purchase of equipment for the plan.

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Associated Press reporters Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Gregory Katz in London, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jeff Karoub in Detroit, and Hamza Hendawi and Mariam Fam in Cairo contributed.