In The Silencing of Loudspeakers, Israel Is No Different

Israel’s draft loudspeaker bill, proposed initially in March and again in November, seeks to silence places of worship at certain hours of the day by preventing them from using loudspeakers for calls to prayer. Israel’s cabinet has backed the bill, but it must pass three readings in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, before becoming law. Israel’s Arab minority consider the bill an attack on their freedom of religious expression, specifically the Islamic call to prayer from mosques, while right-wing sections of Israeli society complain about the noise disrupting Jewish communities. After one of Israel’s top Arab lawmakers, Ahmad Tibi, offered his views on the bill, one of the bill’s sponsors, Jewish Israeli lawmaker Robert Ilatov, offers his own take on the matter.

In recent weeks, several Israeli Knesset members have voiced their concern that a new law I am advocating would harm the Muslim call for prayer and disrupt the freedom of religion in Israel. This cannot be further from the truth.

The ‘Muezzin Bill,’ as it is being called by some Israeli parliament members, is designed to provide a solution for all of Israel’s citizens, be they Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other faith.

Israel Mosque call to prayer An Israeli flag waves in front of the minaret of a mosque in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, November 14. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he backed a bill limiting the volume of calls to prayer from mosques, a proposal government watchdogs called a threat to religious freedom. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty

This bill was created in response to complaints by Israelis from all walks of life asking to limit the use of massive loudspeakers at religious institutions across the country.

For a thousand years, muezzins climbed the minarets of mosques and their strong voices chanted the adhan, or call to prayer. Our specific problem is that in their bid to raise the faithful, mosques are now dueling with loudspeakers worthy of the best rock concerts.

Today’s modern-day muezzin includes a microphone and megawatt amplifiers, blasting out the azan from several mosques at once, and rattling windows and tooth fillings of the surrounding area well before sunrise. The problem is magnified by the mosques not all starting at the same time, so that the adhan becomes an unbearable symphony of high-decibel vibrations that can last up to 10 minutes or more—and at 4:30 in the morning. Imagine your kids being woken up that early because of that noise.

The result is not an inspiring call to prayer, but a wall of noise that adversely affects the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, both Jews and Arabs. In many ways, the goal of the proposed law is to prevent people’s sleep from being disturbed without harming Muslim prayer.

In Israel, we take the issue of freedom of religion seriously. This right for all is protected by law and backed up by the legal system. All citizens in Israel are allowed to practice their religion openly and freely. The new legislation supports a worldview whereby freedom of religion should not at the same time be an excuse to harm quality of life.

In an age where almost everyone has a smartphone and technology is providing creative solutions, the need for loudspeakers is reduced, especially when it’s in the middle of the night. Such a solution was implemented in Jerusalem, where local representatives of the adjoining neighborhoods of Jewish Gilo and Arab Beit Safafa independently reached a compromise using contemporary technology as an alternative to loudspeakers.

And Israel is not alone in this cause. The opponents of this bill fail to mention that many Muslims themselves are also calling for this type of legislation, not just in Israel, but in countries around the world. In researching this matter, I discovered that Israelis of all faiths have common ground with the residents of Cairo and citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Ten years ago, the Ministry of Religious Endowments in Egypt received complaints about the same issue we have here in Israel, that some mosques have “ loudspeakers that shake the world.” And last year a Saudi Arabian newspaper carried an article asking the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to “consider using audio technology for the call to prayer.”

The issue, we discovered, is not Israel’s alone—it is a common concern around the globe. As the world continues to adjust to the 21st century, the subject evokes emotion wherever and whenever it arises—be it in a predominantly Muslim nation such as Egypt, a predominantly Christian country like Germany, or a predominantly Jewish country like Israel.

Just like the Egyptians and the Saudis, the proposed law has nothing against religion and Israel is not banning the call to prayer. The law will in no way affect anyone’s right to prayer. Just like any other society around the world, all the law will do is to regulate the use of massive sound systems. And all the criticism you hear around it is just background noise.

Robert Ilatov is a member of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, for the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party and a sponsor of the ‘Muezzin Bill’ that seeks to silence loudspeakers at places of worship.