Silencing the Muezzin

Michaeli wants to ban Muslim call to prayer on the basis of noise pollution.

Mosque 311  (photo credit: Medial Line screen shot)
Mosque 311
(photo credit: Medial Line screen shot)
Before the dawn rolls in from the east, Muslim worshipers have already been summoned to prayer by the muezzin’s call. Echoing off the stone walls of houses and apartments in Jerusalem, the summons is heard in Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighborhoods alike.
Not everyone likes it, particularly not at four in the morning. A move by Israel Beiteinu MK Anastasia Michaeli to have speakers removed from mosques aims to tone down this age-old, sacred call to prayer.
Michaeli, who drafted the bill, says it’s not singling out Muslims but rather going after noise pollution.
“We respect the freedom of religion, the freedom of thinking, the freedom of staying in the place they want to stay, but at the same time we need to respect the people who want to sleep at four o’clock in the morning,” Michaeli told The Media Line.
A mother of eight, Michaeli, 36, says she’s particularly concerned for the children who are wakened by the call. “This noise pollution disturbs them.”
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Embraced by some as a long overdue measure and dismissed by others as everything from racist to superfluous, Michaeli’s bill has highlighted the complexities involved in coexisting in the Jewish state with a large Muslim minority in towns and cities that are becoming increasingly mixed.
Cities like Jaffa, Acre, Nazareth, Ramle, Lod and Jerusalem with their sizeable Arab neighborhoods are particularly affected by the call, known as the adhan, which is recited five times a day. Michaeli toured these cities recently, garnering support from some of the mayors and a large chunk of the Jewish population who she says are losing tolerance for the wail.
“I hear the call to prayer at night and it bothers me and the kids. They have raised the idea about lowering the volume of the speakers but nothing has ever been done. It continues,” says Motti Gabai, a resident of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood whose house borders the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. 
Michaeli says attempts in the past to get the muezzin to lower the volume have failed. She bemoans the failure by officials to enforce existing noise pollution codes, saying police have complained they don’t have adequate meters for determining noise level. Michaeli proposes using new, less intrusive, electronic forms of summoning the devout to prayer such as internet alarms and personalized radio broadcasts.
Michaeli says that many town mayors, lawmakers and ministers, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, support her legislation, but that it is caught up now in the committee.  Some officials, however, fear it could agitate Muslims.
President Shimon Peres has said he opposes the bill. “This is simply a march of folly… I am personally ashamed there are attempts being made to pass such laws… Israel doesn’t have to raise the ire of all the Muslims in the Arab world against us,” Peres said.
Michaeli first came up with her bill months ago, but it is only now receiving media attention. She assumes it has attracted increased attention because it fits into a pattern of legislation initiated by right-wing lawmakers over the past two years that critics say strike a blow to civil liberties. These include reining in the power of the Supreme Court, placing ceilings on financial assistance to non-profits by foreign governments and limits on Palestinian commemoration of Israeli Independence Day as the Nakba (catastrophe).
Reactions to Michaeli’s bill have been vocal and thousands of Israeli Arabs have protested in the streets against it.
“I think that they make all the demonstrations only because they don’t understand what it is about. The bill is not against their religion. I know that they have to pray five times a day and I respect that. Let them pray but not at a [noise] level that disturbs others,” Michaeli says.
Meeting in her Knesset office, which was taken over by some of her children during the Chanukah holiday, Michaeli shows research on how other countries have dealt with the adhan. She says that in Austria it can be used to call to prayer only once a week on Fridays and that in France it is totally banned. Even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, she notes, have put a four-speaker limit on minarets and those must be directed inward.
“In Israel there is no limit on the number of speakers that can be placed on a mosque and the speakers are directed in all directions,” Michaeli says.
In Beit Safafa, the call to prayer is heard far and wide, and some say silencing it amounts to religious discrimination. The owner of a hardware store in the same building as the village mosque hears the call to prayer at all hours. He says he is not religious and doesn’t want to talk about it, but he does get incensed by Jews trying to stop Muslim traditions.
“When I go to Tel Aviv at night I hear these discotheques making all their loud noise in the middle of the night. It’s the same thing,” says the man, who asked not to be named.
Rami Mashhad, a contractor, is adamantly against the legislation and warns it could ignite the normally peaceful relationship with his Jewish neighbors.
“I think this is a wrong decision at this time because … it will escalate the violence and the misunderstandings between the Israelis and the Arabs so I think they should rethink it,” he says.
But even he admits that perhaps there is room to adjust the volume a bit.
“I do understand if the prayer is annoying to other people but for me it is not annoying,” he says. “Maybe the suggestion should be to make the speakers a little bit lower but not to remove them at all.”
Michaeli’s bill has a long way to go before it becomes law. It must first be approved by a ministerial law committee and then prepared for the first of three readings. But this doesn’t deter Michaeli, who says half the battle was getting the issue on the public agenda.
“It doesn’t matter if the bill exists or not. That is the purpose. The most important result for me is that at 4 o’clock in the morning people want to sleep and not to wake up because of other people who would like to go to pray,” she says. 
Some people, like Motti Gabai in Jerusalem, don’t believe the call to prayer is necessary at all.
“They don’t have to remove the speakers, just lower the volume,” Gabai says. “But believe me, anyone who wants to come and pray will come without calling them on the speaker.”