Uproar over prayer calls in Muslim Morocco
RABAT, Morocco – The muezzins’ calls echo well before daybreak, summoning the Muslim faithful to daily prayers and reminding foreign tourists in the Moroccan capital how far they are from home.
But the rising decibel level is deepening fault lines between a government drive to modernize and a wave of rigorous political Islam.
Morocco, a country of 33 million people, gets more than 7 million tourists a year. And there are worries that some may be put off by the five heavily amplified calls a day, each lasting five minutes, to “hasten to the prayer, hasten to the prayer.”
Muslim purists counter that authorities are compromising religion to please Westerners and the country’s liberal elite.
The frictions are happening in a country that is considered moderate on matters of religion and is a U.S. ally and at a time when there are fears that al-Qaida is establishing itself in North Africa.
Morocco has lately been shaken by two different cases in which the government, or wealthy Westerners, have been accused of plotting to force down the volume on the muezzins who make the call to prayer.
Nouzha Skalli, the minister for family and social affairs, is accused of seeking legislation to lower the volume on muezzins in tourist zones.
Newspapers have asked whether Skalli, a feminist and former Communist, is trying to curb Islam and impose secularism on the overwhelmingly Muslim society. Some hard-line imams have cursed her during public sermons.
Earlier this year Annie Laforet, a Frenchwoman, was blamed for the closure of a mosque next to the luxury guest house she runs in the old town, or medina, of picturesque Marrakech. The claim, which Laforet denied, caused outrage in the local press, and Laforet says she received death threats on Islamist Web sites.
Local authorities backed her denial and then reopened the mosque, from which the prayer call now blares every morning about 4:30 a.m., and then again an hour later.
“It’s a bit loud, but it’s fine,” Laforet said. “Tourists know it’s part of living in the medina.”
Still, Mohammed Darif, a Moroccan political scientist and expert on Islamism, says hard-liners increasingly are depicting the tourist influx as a threat to Muslim values.
Roy says louder calls to prayer are a product of Salafism, a rigorous strain of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia.
“Thirty years ago you could barely hear the muezzin,” he said.
Also, he said, the audio technology used for prayer calls has improved, and imams are in competition to fill their mosques.
Islam is the state religion in Morocco and the king is the “Commander of the Believers.” The state trains and appoints all imams, but tends to avoid dictating standards of public behavior.
Criticizing any form of Islamic practice is difficult in the Arab world because no Muslim wants to stand accused of being irreligious, Roy said.
But as conservatives have become more outspoken, so have moderates. For a Cabinet minister to say anything critical of prayer calls “would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago,” he said.