17 December 2010

The church bell, the muezzin, and the yodeler: Clashes in the sacred soundscape

Yesterday, The Telegraph ran the story of an Austrian man convicted for yodeling because it offended his Muslim neighbors:
Helmut Griese, 63, was found guilty of "ridiculing" their religious beliefs and fined nearly £700 by a court in Graz. Rather than face a protracted court case, with all its attendant legal costs, Mr Griese agreed to pay.

The court heard how the Muslim family regarded Mr Griese as a "grumpy old man" whose open-air Alpine chanting was intended as a taunt aimed at their religion. The retiree was accused trying to "mock and imitate" the call of the Muezzin, who calls the faithful for prayer in mosques. They alleged that he always began his yodelling just as they knelt down to pray.

Mr Griese, however, told the Austrian newspaper Kornen that "it was not my intention to imitate or insult them. I simply started to yodel a few tunes because I was in such a good mood."

The court heard how things came to a head late in the summer when Griese was both mowing his lawn and yodelling as the Muslim family were praying. Police were called, and he was served with a summons.

Mr Griese was charged the "disparagement of religious symbols" - an offence usually used to prosecute for neo-Nazis who desecrate Jewish graves - and hindering religious practice.
Look past what appears to be an illiberal abuse of a law pertaining to hate-motivated destruction of property, and Austria's broader problem of curtailing free expression in deference to religious sentiments--in the 1994 case of Otto-Preminger Institute v Austria, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Austria's national blasphemy law, under which the government had banned and confiscated a film deemed offensive to Catholics, citing an amorphous “right of citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings." Could Mr. Griese claim that he was offended by the muezzin's call to prayer, delivered five times daily, and not always more mellifluously than the average yodel?

The case of the yodeler and the muezzin points to a far-reaching struggle over the rights of mosques in the shared aural environment of communities from Cairo to Oxford to Dearborn, Michigan. While some historically Christian communities may be uncomfortable with the call to prayer, the azan or adhan, many already tolerate religious sounds in the form of church bells. Mosques, therefore, can stake a claim of fairness and equal treatment under the law. But the controversy is complicated by the widespread use of amplifiers and loudspeakers to broadcast the call.

As the Alpine yodel was once, the Arabic adhan is today primarily a form of communication. It carries doctrinal content lacking in a bell tone:
God is great! God is great!
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah
Come to prayer
Come to salvation . . .
The words vary depending on time of day ("Prayer is better than sleeping") and sect. First and foremost, however, the adhan is a summons. Traditionally, any believer who hears its strains is under an obligation to attend prayer. Hence the incentive for mosques to technologically project their calls further and further, especially when competing with the noise of urban soundscapes. The aggregate can be cacophony. "Rather than being a joy, to listen to the call to prayer is a daily torture to the ears," one Cairo resident told the BBC in 2005.

The religious propriety of amplifying the adhan has been the subject of debate among Islamic scholars for generations. For many, the resolution hinges on whether the sound emerging from the loudspeaker counts as the voice of the muezzin, or something else--a fascinating metaphysical question. What seems uncontroversial is that Muhammad did not foresee the microphone, and that the Qur'an and Sunnah contain no positive injunction to broadcast the call as far as possible. Instead, it is assumed that some ears will be beyond its reach.

How should municipal governments regulate "sacred" sound? If majority non-Muslim communities wish to muzzle the muezzin altogether, they will have to be prepared to silence their bells, or else be guilty of arbitrary discrimination by failing to demonstrate equal regard for the claims of some citizens merely in virtue of their religious identity. A more promising solution is to forbid amplification of the call to prayer, provided that comparable amplification is also denied to church bells, to say nothing of--God save us--amateur yodelers.

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