Opinion

Is an Israeli Bill to Mute the Muezzin a Threat to Palestinian Identity?

Right-wing lawmakers disingenuously suggest it's all just a noise pollution issue. But we know the kind of politicians attracted to laws that target Muslims only.

The Israeli flag flies in front of the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City.
Reinhard Krause, Reuters

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. A bill before the Knesset intended to deprive Muslim muezzins of their loudspeakers initially met with stiff resistance from ultra-Orthodox Jews who became temporary allies with Palestinian Israeli and Jewish leftist politicians.

United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, who serves as deputy health minister in the current cabinet, threatened to torpedo the proposal, not out of love of the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, or for his Muslim neighbors, but because he, like the Shas party, feared it could also be used to curb the rights of Jews to make holy noise. “Since the technology developed, loudspeakers have been used to announce the onset of Shabbat,” Litzman noted last week. Indeed, a siren is sounded across Jerusalem and can be clearly heard in many Arab neighborhoods.

Now Litzman has reportedly withdrawn his appeal after he was apparently reassured that an exception for the Shabbat siren would be included in the proposed legislation, paving the way to a preliminary reading at the Knesset, originally slated for Wednesday but which may be postponed by a week.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians and their allies – within Israel, in Arab and Muslim countries and in the wider world – are outraged by this discriminatory initiative. They see it as yet another example of ultra-nationalist Israelis attempting to silence Palestinians and erase another poignant symbol of their culture.

This explains why there have been numerous protests against the bill, with Hamas’ leader in exile warning Israel that it was “playing with fire.” Turkey, with which Israel has recently mended diplomatic fences, also expressed outrage, as did Jordanian soccer fans. In addition to the expected condemnation by Islamists, secular and Christian Palestinians have also been vocal in their opposition to the draft legislation.

Muslim men pray during Laylat al-Qadr in front of the Dome of the Rock during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City July 1, 2016.
Ammar Awad, AFP

“If mosques are silenced, we will make sure that the muezzin will be heard in churches, in Nazareth, in Haifa, in Jaffa and in Jerusalem,” to replace the tamped down muezzin, Basel Ghattas, a Knesset member who belongs to the Joint List, said defiantly. “This bill poses a danger not only to mosques or to Muslim Arab citizens, but also endangers churches and Christian Arabs and the Palestinian identity.”

And churches have already been tolling their solidarity. The adhan was even heard in the Knesset when a couple of Arab parliamentarians recited the call to prayer, in a sort of holy filibuster, while some of their Jewish counterparts heckled them.

Some defenders of the bill will protest that the draft legislation is not targeted at mosques but at all houses of worship that make excessive noise. But that would be disingenuous.

The original wording of the bill, which was introduced by Moti Yogev of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party, did not mince words about its intended target, mosques, and the wording was changed to encompass all houses of worship only after the justice system objected to it as discriminatory.

If the bill were truly about controlling overly zealous holy noise, then existing noise pollution regulations would suffice, as head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh has pointed out, and numerous grassroots compromises have been hammered out in mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

In fact, this is how most Western countries tackle the issue – noise regulations that apply to everyone, religious and secular alike. However, MK Yogev’s clear intention – to single out Muslims’ public presence – isn’t satisfied by laws that are inclusive such as these. There is more than an echo of the rise of Donald Trump and other far-right demagogues, who find the idea of legislation targeting only Muslims appealing.

Moshe Gilad

Moreover, a non-discriminatory law would not exempt the Jewish siren or the blaring speakers used during Jewish holy days, including in predominantly Arab areas, such as Sheikh Jarrah, which is the location of the Shimon Hatzadik tomb, where a noisy annual festival pumps up the decibels and blocks roads.

If it were a question of preserving tranquillity, then the mayor of mixed Lod would not have decided to protest the noise made by mosques by creating a competing ding by blaring out a traditional Jewish prayer from city hall at the same time as the adhan.

What this reveals is that the sound of religious conflict has become an under-appreciated and under-reported battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, it sometimes strikes me that during periods of high tension or in areas near settlers, mosques appear to get louder. In East Jerusalem, where I live, I have noticed that mosques are at their loudest during periods when there are protests or clashes with Israeli forces.

Beyond the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian context, the excessive sound pollution caused by mosques has not gone without objection, albeit of an often-muted nature as the loud protests of the pious can silence dissent. In a number of Muslim societies, as a sign of the growing sway of Islamists and the intimidation they exercise, is the growing number and volume of calls to prayer, with tiny corner mosques run by Salafists often sporting the loudest amplifiers.

An early example of efforts to bring this phenomenon under control was Tunisia’s first president and independence leader Habib Bourguiba who, a Tunisian friend informed me, banned loudspeakers during the dawn prayer (al-fajr) out of consideration for the sick, students and workers who needed to sleep.

Several Muslim countries, including Jordan, the UAE and Turkey have a unified adhan to minimize the cacophony caused by numerous mosques calling the faithful to pray at slightly different times, causing a sort of sound cascade. Egypt, whose loud and rebellious population defeats any attempts at noise control, also tried but failed to introduce such a system.

From a functional perspective, the adhan has effectively become obsolete in the 21st century. With the proliferation of alarm clocks, including Mecca-themed ones, apps, SMS alerts and other technologies, the adhan broadcast by the mosque no longer serves a practical purpose.

Of course, the adhan is inextricably linked to the cultural identity of Muslim societies around the world, in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Despite my annoyance at being flung out of bed, especially when the speaker is so loud that it sounds like you are sleeping atop a minaret, I have been moved by the sublime beauty of the adhan when performed by capable muezzins, such as when I have heard from rooftops near al-Azhar and al-Hussein mosques in Cairo.

However, we need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, as well as children, the elderly and the sick.

One way to do this is by preserving both the beauty and tradition of the adhan. Since the call to prayer only serves an aesthetic purpose in our high-tech world, muezzins should return to their roots, climb the minaret and give us only acoustic renditions of the adhan.

But this unplugged adhan is not something the Knesset can or should impose.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer living in Jerusalem. He is the author of "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land." Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea