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Free expression or intimidation? Israeli bill sparks debate on mosques’ calls to prayer

Thousands of Palestinians perform Eid prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, marking the muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, on Sept. 12, 2016. Credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90.
Thousands of Palestinians perform Eid prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, marking the muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, on Sept. 12, 2016. Credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90.

A controversial bill to limit the volume of Muslim calls to prayer from mosques across Israel pits freedom of religious expression against the right to be protected from unwanted religious intimidation.

The bill’s supporters contend that the calls’ noise negatively affects the quality of life of nearby residents of all faiths—including some Muslims—that are not interested in the five-times-a-day ritual, particularly the midnight and pre-dawn calls that often wake adults and small children.

Opponents of the bill suggest that the measure was offered specifically to discriminate against mosques and that it inflames religious tensions.

The bill passed its first reading in Israel’s Knesset last week. Authored by Jewish Home party Member of Knesset Moti Yogev, the proposed law initially sought to prevent the broadcasting of nationalistic messages and incitement over mosque loudspeakers. The bill was later reworded to cite “excessive noise” from houses of worship.

Ironically, Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the religious United Torah Judaism party filed an appeal against the bill, worrying that the proposal could limit the volume of a weekly siren on Fridays just before sunset that signals the beginning of Shabbat.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supports the bill, told his cabinet members last week that Israel “is a country that respects freedom of religion for all faiths,” but is also “committed to defending those who suffer from the loudness of the excessive noise of the announcements.”

Netanyahu noted that the volume of the prayer calls is restricted or totally silenced “in many European cities and in many places in the Islamic world. I support similar legislation and enforcement in the state of Israel.”

According to Dr. Reuven Berko, a former colonel in the Israel Police and former adviser on Arab affairs for the Jerusalem Police Department, the desire for a reduction of mosque noise, particularly at night, “is something shared in common between Arabs and Israelis.”

“Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—people all over the country object to it,” Berko told “They do not want these disturbances. There are a lot of noise complaints. Muslims often come to Israeli police officers to complain about the mosque calls at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Muslims who do not personally heed the prayer calls typically suffer the most because they normally live closer to the mosques than Christians or Jews. At the same time, the calls are regularly heard deep into adjacent Jewish neighborhoods, causing unwanted noise pollution for Jewish residents.

Berko believes the current proposal could be interpreted the wrong way—as a religious battle between Judaism and Islam—by intentionally restricting the “voice of Islam to express itself.”

“This is not the case,” Berko asserted, “but Islamic extremists would like to point to this proposal as evidence of a war between religions.”

Berko rejects the need for a new law specifically targeting the mosques, saying that “there is already a law on the books in Israel which enables law enforcement to limit volume according to decibel levels.”

“There are specific hours in residential communities in which noise is legally supposed to be stopped,” he said. “Those that wish for relative quiet at night can already be satisfied by the existing law. Passing a new law does not improve the ability of law enforcement to enforce it.  Whether it is a discotheque or a mosque, there is a practical way to deal with the issue that does not discriminate by religion.”

“Every mosque has an imam,” Berko continued. “If there is an imam, you have an address to charge a steep fine if the speakers are too loud. If they pretend to say that there is no imam, then you can enter the mosque and confiscate the loudspeakers.”

Yet Itamar Marcus—founder of Palestinian Media Watch, a group that monitors public incitement against Jews—said any law limiting or banning a mosque’s loud calls “is not an imposition on someone’s freedom of religion.” He said the current bill is meant to directly counter the intent of the loudspeakers “to create a presence and dominance of the mosque in the community.”

The loud call five times a day “serves a very strong message to the people that the mosque is calling residents to prayer, whether they want it or not,” Marcus told Mosques, he said, “can do whatever they want as long as they are not disturbing other people. Nobody should impose on anybody else what prayers they should hear.”

Besides the five-times-daily prayer calls, many mosques increase the calls’ volume during the Friday mid-morning prayer and then broadcast the imam’s lengthy sermon via the loudspeaker.  Such sermons have been censured for anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric.

“What we see from the sermons that are broadcast on Palestinian television is that there are often calls to incitement,” said Marcus, noting that a “sermon broadcast just a few months ago called on Allah to count the Jews to the last one, and kill them to the last one.”

“[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas’s adviser on religion recently spoke about Jews throughout history as being connected to Satan,” said Marcus. “There is a lot of that hatred even on television. So the question is, what might be worse in the sermons that are not being broadcast on television?”

Berko agreed that mosque loudspeakers are used to incite.

“If you broadcast the calls to prayer, and worshippers enter your mosque, you can stand on the pulpit and preach to whoever chooses to come to the mosque and listen,” he said. “But if you preach to an entire community, and even to a neighboring Jewish community over the loudspeakers, this is a true provocation.”

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