Tonight, petitions could stall Muslim prayer call

On the roof of the Al-Islah Islamic Center in Hamtramck, a tall post with three loudspeakers stands ready to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

The installation is simple, but the issues surrounding it have grown far more complex than anyone expected.

They have thrust a city known for its Polish Catholic heritage into a nasty war of words over religious rights and the standing of Islam in America.

The controversy mushroomed from a local squabble over a mosque’s simple desire to broadcast the call to prayer to one that has captured headlines around the world. Newspapers in the Middle East, Europe and Asia have run reports. Hamtramck City Council members have been pelted with e-mails from across the United States and abroad.

People from all over metro Detroit — from pastors and imams to lawyers and white supremacists — also have joined the fray. A noise ordinance amendment allowing the broadcasts passed unanimously last month, but the furor over the issue could come to a head again tonight.

That’s when opponents will have their last chance to persuade the City Council to rescind the amendment. But the council isn’t likely to reconsider its earlier vote, and so the debate — for the moment — may be moot.

The ordinance was to take effect Wednesday, but a petition drive may have stopped it. Acting City Clerk Genevieve Bukoski said she will notify the council today that the petitions have been certified.

Under the city charter, if the council declines to rescind the amendment after receiving the petitions, the ordinance is automatically put on hold and becomes a ballot initiative. Voters will decide at a special election or in August, the next scheduled election.

“I haven’t seen any indication from anyone on the council that they’re changing,” City Council President Karen Majewski said Monday.

The Al-Islah Islamic Center was on track to be the first mosque in the 2.1-square-mile city of 23,000 to begin broadcasting the call to prayer several times a day. It had planned to start broadcasts on Friday.

Opponents have called the plan to broadcast the call to prayer noise pollution, an offense to Christians and a violation of their religious rights.

The arguments, like those expressed Monday by Hamtramck resident Caroline Zarski, 81, often seem paradoxical.

“I’m a Christian Catholic. I practice my own religion,” Zarski said. “I don’t want to listen to them.”

Zarski said she lives near two of the city’s three mosques and is likely to be within earshot of the calls to prayer.

“This is a melting pot. We all become Americans,” she said, adding, “What they’re trying to do is make us assimilate into their culture.”

About 90 percent of the letters Hamtramck City Council members have received oppose the broadcasts, Majewski said. The letters range from reasoned opposition to “racist and personally offensive name-calling using vulgar language,” she said.

Many express bitter feelings about the rising profile of Islam in the United States at a time when U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq.

Some opponents included the Rev. James Marquis, pastor of the New Covenant Worship Center, who traveled from Wellston, Ohio, last month. He told the City Council: “We feel like they’re setting a precedent and they’re forcing us to hear a prayer we don’t want to hear. They are reciting a prayer to a God we don’t believe in.”

To some in Hamtramck, the issue has spun out of local control.

A Plymouth-based white supremacist group, the National Alliance, distributed racist letters in the city urging “White Americans to understand these attacks on our civilization will continue unless we organize in self-defense.”

Robert Zwolak, who organized the petition campaign aimed at putting the ordinance to a citywide vote, said people outside of Hamtramck have been sending him information and offering to volunteer or help. Some are bigots, he said.

“It’s a challenge for me to be moderate and not to feed into people’s prejudices,” he said.

Masud Khan, secretary of the Al-Islah mosque, said the mosque leadership will wait to see what the City Council advises tonight, before deciding when to begin. But even when the mosque starts broadcasting, Khan said, it won’t issue early morning and late night calls to prayer.

So far, Al-Islah is the only one of the three mosques in the city, which is about one-third Muslim, that plans external broadcasts.

Tonight’s Hamtramck City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 3401 Evaline.

Staff writer David Crumm contributed to this report.

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Detroit Free Press, USA
May 25, 2004
Cecil Angel, Free Press Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 26, 2004.
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