Uproar over Islamic call to prayer pits tolerance, tradition
HAMTRAMCK — From her front porch, Alice Dembowski has watched her city change, one tidy house at a time.
“Chinese, Polish, Bosnian, Polish, Bengali,” she recites, her finger moving down the block. “They were all Polish at one time.
“I’ve made friends. I go to their weddings. (But) we’re losing our tradition and I’m getting mad,” Dembowski said. “If they’re going to live in America, why can’t they be more American?”
Next month, Hamtramck will become one of the few cities in the United States where the Islamic call to prayer is broadcast onto public streets. The impact of that decision is reverberating across the nation.
“God is great” (four times);
“I testify there is no other God but God” (twice);
“I testify Muhammad is the messenger of God” (twice);
“Come and pray” (twice);
“Come and flourish” (twice);
“God is great “(twice);
“There is no God but God” (once).
Translation by Masud Khan, secretary of Al-Islah Islamic Center, Hamtramck
Loudspeakers on an old brick building in Hamtramck have become a symbol of the struggle between tolerance and tradition, and raise questions about what it means to be American.
Bisera Vlahovljak, a Muslim who moved to Hamtramck 10 years ago from Bosnia said the call to prayer is about religious freedom.
“This is why I came to America,” she said. “I think more people should be respectful of others’ traditions.”
But Jamil Olinger, who lives near the Al-Islah Islamic Center, said the call to prayer “gets on my nerves sometimes.
“I hear (the prayers) at night,” Olinger said. “I try not to pay attention to it, but it does bug me.”
City Council President Karen Majewski said the controversy is about “change.”
“People are hearing something in this story that may have very little to do with Hamtramck,” Majewski said. “It has to do with change.”
Tuesday night, the five-member City Council is expected to give final approval to an amendment to Hamtramck’s noise ordinance that will regulate the calls to prayer. Twenty days later, the amendment will go into effect, and the al-Islah Islamic Center will be allowed to broadcast its call to prayer over loudspeakers.
The call to prayer, lasting one to two minutes, has been an Islamic tradition for 1,400 years. Historically sung from the minaret of a mosque, today the call often is a recording played over loudspeakers.
Although it is a public event in other parts of the world, mosques in the United States generally give the call to prayer inside their walls.
In Hamtramck, the call will be made live, five times a day, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., said Masud Khan, associate imam and secretary at al-Islah.
While only one mosque requested permission to broadcast the calls to prayer, the ordinance would allow the city’s other two mosques to follow suit if they wish. The ordinance applies to any kind of religious announcement at any house of worship.
“We are just praising God and calling our brothers to prayer,” Khan said. “I’ve been surprised by the reaction.”
Calls stay inside
Most mosques even in heavily Muslim Dearborn do not broadcast calls to prayer.
Imam Hassan Qazwini, spiritual leader of the area’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of America in Detroit, said his mosque has a call to prayer inside the mosque.
“The reason we don’t do that is because our neighbors are not Muslim,” Qazwini said. “Raising the call for prayer outdoors would be purposeless. The point behind raising the call for prayer is to invite neighbors to come and pray.”
For 15 years, Imam Mohamed Musa was the spiritual leader of the American Muslim Society, the only known mosque in the area that broadcasts over a loudspeaker five daily calls to prayer.
The Dearborn mosque has issued the call to local Muslims for more than 15 years because most of the people in the neighborhood are Muslims.
Only once did a neighbor complain, Musa said.
Musa’s current post, the Islamic Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills, does not issue prayer calls because there aren’t enough Muslims living nearby. But he does support the Hamtramck mosque’s plan.
“Every religion has its different ways to call for the prayer. In Christianity, they ring bells. In Judaism, they blow the horn,” Musa said. “If there is no violation of the law, we have to accept each other and respect each other. We are neighbors in this great country. It is a very unique country because every person has his own religion and he can practice it. We are proud of that as Muslims, and non-Muslims should be proud of that also.”
Hamtramck didn’t set a maximum decibel level for the calls to prayer. Police will respond to complaints over the volume of the loudspeakers in the same way they now respond to complaints of loud cars or music, Majewski said.
“This is a ground-breaking effort, and I hope it will set a precedent for other communities across the nation,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights organization in Washington, D.C.
“It sends a tremendously positive message to the rest of the world at a time when we face severe criticism. America supports religious diversity, particularly religious support for its Muslim citizens.”
City of immigrants
That such a controversy would arise in Hamtramck is not surprising. The city has become Michigan’s Ellis Island, with immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa settling there. In the 2000 census, 41 percent of Hamtramck residents said they were born outside the United States; English is the only language spoken in less than half of the city’s homes; one-third of the 23,000 residents report speaking English “less than very well.”
Between 1990 and 2000, the city’s Arab population jumped more than fivefold, while its traditional Polish population dropped by more than a third.
Shabad Ahmed, the city’s first Muslim City Council member, estimates that Hamtramck’s population is now more than one-third Muslim.
Hamtramck also is a city with a long and colorful history of political dissent. Many elections are followed immediately by efforts to recall the winners. Currently, there is a petition drive to recall three school board members. But even that tradition has bowed to reality: Petitions are written in Polish, Bosnian, Arabic and English.
“People are so passionate about the city’s character, whatever they may imagine it to be,” Majewski said. “Here, it matters who your neighbors are and what you hear outside your window. It’s a glorious thing and a maddening thing as well.”
Residents are circulating petitions to ban the calls to prayer and are threatening lawsuits.
Donald Herzog, professor of law and political science at the University of Michigan, said he doubts a legal challenge could stop the calls to prayer.
That hasn’t stopped the outcry from people who view the broadcast onto public streets as forcing Islam on non-Muslims.
Council members have received hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls from across the United States, complaining about the ruling. Council member Ahmed said people don’t realize that less than half of the Muslims in Hamtramck are from the Middle East. Most are from Bangladesh, with other large Muslim contingents from Bosnia and Somalia.
“When there’s something new, people are afraid to change,” Ahmed said. “But as a government official, I don’t see we could do anything differently.”
The Rev. Stanley Ulman lives in a home and is the pastor of the Catholic church, St. Ladislaus, across the street from al-Islah Islamic Center.
He thinks the discussion about the prayer calls moved from noise to religion because some community members don’t want to see their neighborhood change.
“I sense a strong bias and an anger,” Ulman said. “There is this feeling they’re going to lose something in this deal, their identity, their place in the city of the Polish Catholic community. There is a sense that they may want to leave or have to leave or be forced to leave or they won’t feel comfortable being here. It’s a change they don’t want to see happen. But I think it’s an inevitable change.”
Ulman was building relationships with some of the imams in Hamtramck but will soon be leaving his parish after 25 years because he has been reassigned to a Rochester Hills church. He hopes others in the community will not choose to leave because of their discomfort.
“That’s a pattern. When people don’t feel comfortable with people moving in, they leave,” Ulman said. “The only way to counteract that is to dialogue, and the only way to incorporate the newcomer is to make them feel welcome.”
Majewski, a historian of immigration and former executive director of the Polish-American Historic Association, said Polish residents of Hamtramck today should remember that a century ago, they were the immigrants whom Americans feared.
“At the turn of the (20th) century, there was a great fear that the U.S. wasn’t going to be Anglo-Saxon Protestant anymore,” Majewski said. “They felt the whole fabric of the U.S. was being destroyed” by Eastern Europeans who were Catholic.
“They feared we were losing the America that our forefathers had created. In a sense, they were right — America became much more diverse.”