'Loudspeakers are part of competition between mosques'

Researcher Itamar Tzur speaks about muezzin's history, current use, and precedents for lowering the volume.

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The "Muezzin Law," which received preliminary approval a few days ago, continues to be the subject of heated debate.

Public figures in the Arab sector spoke about how the proposed law harms the Muslim community, and used the law to "prove" Israel is an apartheid state which works to destroy minorities.

In a conversation with Middle East researcher Itamar Tzur, several precedents came up for the Muezzin Law, all of them attempts to balance the Western and Arab cultures.

While the muezzin itself has existed since Mohammed's time, the loudspeakers used to announce prayers are a twentieth-century invention, Tzur said, not mandated in Islamic law. They actually express a kind of internal contest between mosques, in which each mosque is vying for the public's ears and heart.

"The muezzin's purpose is to call as many people as possible to attend prayers five times a day," Tzur said. "Anyone who doesn't pray - even Muslims - suffers from the muezzin's noise. It's a disturbance.

"But the bigger problem is that if a city has twenty or thirty mosques, and each is blasting from its loudspeakers as loudly as possible, it becomes a kind of competition, to see which mosque's muezzin can blare the loudest, and it lasts for half an hour.

"Muslims have an obligation to spread Allah's word, so that it will reach as many people as possible. In my opinion - and this still needs some research - that's what the muezzin are used for. It's an attempt to fill the air with Allah's words, to say, 'We're here. This is Allah's word and it is truth.'

"In Cairo, they passed a law obligating all muezzin to blast at the same time. The purpose of this law is so that the mosques will not disturb anyone who does not want to pray at a given hour.

"In Indonesia, there is a committee which examines the noise level. And in India, there is a limit on the decibel level. Nigeria has an official process for making laws against muezzin and church bells. And in Israel, the noise is even louder, possibly on purpose because of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The right-wing Knesset members want to hurt the Arab Knesset members, and the Arab Knesset members want to prove Israel is an apartheid state which harms Muslims. But we're not trying to open a Pandora's box here.

"In Caesarea, they turned asked the neighboring Arab town of Jisr az-Zarqa to lower the volume, and ended up paying what amounted to a bribe to do so. When they stopped paying the bribe, Jisr az-Zarqa turned the volume back up, even louder than they had it originally.

"I think each municipality is capable of dealing with the situation on its own. If they want to make noise in Umm al-Fahm (a town with no Jews nearby, in what is known as the Arab Triangle, ed.) I don't really care."

Tzur also said Arab MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint Arab List) is manipulating the issue to encourage anti-Israel sentiments in the international arena. To do this, he spoke in Arabic at the Knesset, and makes sure Al-Jazeera reports on what he says. He also stepped on the printed pages of the law, which in Muslim culture is considered an insult.

"Tibi knows exactly who he's speaking to," Tzur said. "It's all carefully planned."

The “Muezzin Law” was originally to have been applied during all hours of the day, but haredi parties objected to its original wording, fearing that it could be used to silence the Shabbat sirens which announce the beginning of the Sabbath each Friday, joined with the Arab parties in opposing the bill.

The new version of the law would only affect calls to prayer issued at night, as it says that any house of prayer using outdoor loudspeakers between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. would be liable to pay a fine of at least 5,000 shekels ($1,333).

The bill was approved after a heated discussion in the Knesset on Wednesday, that turned into shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Arab lawmakers, who are opposed to the law.