Noisy Controversy Over Hushed Prayers


Jerusalem — Ofer Ayoubey and Mohammed Alyan are on a mission: to convince Israel’s Jews and Muslims that a Knesset bill aimed at prohibiting ear-splitting noise emitted from mosques and other religious institutions is unnecessary, and even harmful.

Ayoubey, director of the Community Administration of Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, and Alyan, the mukhtar, or mayor of the nearby Arab village of Beit Safafa, have spent nearly four years working out a compromise that will replace the village’s mosque loudspeakers — which can be heard for miles around — with smaller loudspeakers scattered around the village and not directed toward Jewish or Christian neighborhoods.

The two-month-old agreement, which can be implemented only if the municipality or national government earmarks $66,000 in funding, “can be a model for every other municipality grappling with this issue,” Alyan told The Jewish Week as he in stood in front of one of the village’s five mosques, where four large loudspeakers stand high above the building.

Ayoubey, who was visiting Alyan in Beit Safafa this week, insisted the bill — a scheduled reading in the Knesset was postponed for a third time on Wednesday, an indication of its sensitivity — “will only inflame tensions between people and ignite a war no one wants. We want the country’s leaders to learn from us, the local leaders.”

Knesset member Moti Yogev from the right-wing Israel Home party introduced the bill, which would apply to the entire country, after a Jerusalem municipality study discovered that the volume of Muslim prayers broadcast by many of the city’s loudspeakers do in fact exceed noise pollution standards that the law says all residents must abide by; the legislation, reportedly backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is referred to as the “muezzin’s bill,” after the mosque official who summons the faithful to prayer.

Israel is far from the only country to tackle excessive volume from mosque loudspeakers. Many nations, including Muslim ones, have set limits, or tried to, but in Israel, a country where any challenge or perceived challenge to the religious status quo, especially in Jerusalem, has sparked violence and international condemnation, passing a law that prohibits mosque loudspeakers from operating “could ignite a fire,” Ayoubey said.

“Considering this issue from the perspective of noise pollution, it is perfectly acceptable for states to impose controls on levels of noise emanating from various institutions including churches, synagogues and mosques,” said Samanatha Knights, a London-based lawyer and expert in cases involving law and religion.

Knights warned, however, that legislation “must be reasonable and proportionate and represent a fair balance between the interests of the religious or other institution and society. I am not aware of an outright ban on loudspeakers in mosques anywhere other than what is currently being proposed in Israel.”

Although the bill applies to all religious institutions, a new provision added recently bans loudspeakers only from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. That all but ensures that loudspeaker-enhanced church bells, the siren that sounds just prior to Shabbat and occasionally amplified prayers at the Western Wall will not be affected.

The bill’s advocates claim that the vast majority of imams have ignored pleas to lower the volume, especially in the middle of the night and on Friday mornings, when hour-long sermons may be blasted over loudspeakers affixed to hundreds of minarets. Many residents of Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem say the volume has only gotten worse over the years.

There’s the sense that this is part of the “cultural wars” between Jews and Muslims, said Gerald Steinberg, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist.

The bill’s opponents don’t deny that some muezzins are raising the volume to assert Muslim rights in Israel, but they insist that if the police enforced existing noise regulations, this would be a non-issue.

Leaders of Beit Safafa, an Arab village in east Jerusalem, and Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood, agreed to replace the speakers atop the village's five mosques with smaller, street-level ones. Michele Chabin/JW

“The problem is that no one is enforcing it, because it’s such a sensitive issue,” Ayoubey said. “If nobody is enforcing the rules we already have, how will passing a law make a difference? Nobody will take down the loudspeakers and arrest anyone. It won’t happen.”

Knesset member Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List coalition of Arab parties, called the bill “another law in a series of racist and populist laws that only aim to create an atmosphere of hatred and incitement against the Arab public.”

There are signs that the proposed law has so unsettled Muslim religious officials that they are now eager to negotiate a solution.

At a meeting arranged by President Reuven Rivlin between Israel’s Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, Sheikh Abdel al-Hakim Samara, president of the Islamic Sharia court, said in an unprecedented statement, “We all agree there is a need to lower the volume in problematic areas and we will act to ensure this, regardless of the law. … Once the law goes through without us attempting to resolve the issue through dialogue, it causes us to feel that our freedoms are vulnerable. Solutions can be achieved even without the threat of the law looming over our heads.”

At the same meeting, Sheikh Mohammed Ciooan, head of the imam’s organization representing some 400 Muslim religious leaders, vowed to hire engineers to check loudspeaker volume and look for solutions, and, he added, "We will issue a call to all worshipers to work for consideration and decrease the volume anywhere that constitutes a problem.”

Ayoubey and Alyan expressed the hope that Rivlin, who opposes the bill, would invite them to the president’s residence so they can share their agreement with dozens of other municipal officials grappling with noise created by religious institutions — from mosque noise to the ear-splitting outdoors dedications of Torah scrolls.

“We want to show how we’ve solved the problem,” Ayoubey said, explaining that “Nobody wants their children awakened at 4 a.m. and there were Gilo residents who wanted to put loudspeakers on their homes and direct them, with loud music, toward Beit Safafa. I knew if they did that it would start a war between us.”

After Gilo residents complained about the mosques to the police, the Gilo activist contacted Alyan, who explained that the loudspeakers weren’t under his control. But Alyan organized several meetings with the meuzzins and a compromise began to take shape.

Ayoubey recalls explaining that Gilo residents were not against Islam, just the noise. The muezzins explained that the call to prayer is required and that expecting worshippers to use an alarm clock, or an app (yes, there is an app) was not permissible in Islam.

The Muslim officials permitted the volume to be measured and learned that it exceeded permissible limits.

The compromise calls for Beit Safafa to remove the large round loudspeakers placed up high at the village’s five mosques and instead install several smaller, rectangular loudspeakers that emit far less noise on the streets, at eye level.

Aylan noted that his village is surrounded by Jewish neighborhoods and that the relations between them are generally excellent.

“We live here almost together," he said. "They shop in our stores, they use our services and we use theirs.”

Beit Safafa, he said, “was here long before the Jewish neighborhoods, and our mosques have been using loudspeakers for decades. And we hear the noise and the Shabbat siren from Gilo."

But, he added," At the same time I know that a law prohibiting loudspeakers will only lead to hatred between our peoples. We need and want to get along."