A call to prayer - by loudspeaker

A local mosque's broadcast tests the tolerance of a city.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In this working-class town surrounded by Detroit, every street corner is a meeting of nations. Kosinski Hardware sits across from Aladdin Sweets. Olga and Ania's Beauty Salon is next door to a Bosnian restaurant, and the local King Video advertises movies in Albanian, Arabic, Polish, and Hindi. Conversations on the street are as likely to be in Bengali or Polish as in English.

But if Hamtramck's immigrant past has always been a source of pride, lately it's caused tensions as well, now amplified - literally - by a call to prayer that local mosques will broadcast from speakers five times a day.

The city council's adoption this week of an ordinance that allows the calls between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. has spurred debate about where the right to religious freedom ends and the right to quiet begins. Now, a flood of dissent has turned Hamtramck into a national symbol of culture clash, an intersection of turmoil and tolerance. What began as a simple question of noise has become a flash point of religious distrust, difference, and fear of Muslim "outsiders."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

"Fear is the driving factor here," says the Rev. Stanley Ulman, a mild-mannered pastor who has presided over St. Ladislaus church for 25 years. Many Polish residents "feel that this isn't their town anymore - that they're being shoved out." The Reverend Ulman has urged his congregation not to rush to judgment - to give the broadcasts a chance and, more important, to start a dialogue with Muslim neighbors. But many are skeptical. "Change is the issue here," he says. "And change is always difficult,

'Blown out of proportion'

When the Al-Islah Islamic Center submitted its request to the council last year, it didn't anticipate a firestorm. Instead, its leaders thought they were simply being courteous - offering the city government a chance to approve and regulate the calls to prayer, which were already permitted under local laws.

"It's been blown way out of proportion," says Masud Khan, the secretary for Al-Islah, as he sits in the mosque's prayer room. He points out that three Detroit towns on Hamtramck's borders have been issuing the calls for years without objection. Mr. Khan and other Muslims compare the calls to church bells - religious sounds that travel into the community. And with so many Muslims living nearby, he says, broadcasting the calls is the mosque's duty. "This is a freedom-of-religion country. And if you follow your religion, you have to have tolerance for others."

In Al-Islah's foyer, flyers explain the calls to non-Muslims. They'll sound five times a day - at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall - last a little over a minute, and include proclamations that translate as "Allah is the greatest," "Mohammed is the messenger of Allah," "Come to prayer," and "Come to success." They are meant only for Muslims, says Mr. Khan. "We are not preaching."

But some residents disagree. While early objections centered on noise, they quickly morphed into discomfort with the calls' content. Area churches don't project their sermons beyond their own walls, dissenters point out. And church bells don't carry a specific message.

"The fact that Allah, who is not my God, is being praised five times a day, seven days a week, for 365 days a year, is upsetting," says Bob Golen, a retired legal consultant who's lived in Hamtramck for 68 years. "I don't intend on moving, and I'm not out to start a war. But we will never see eye to eye on this particular issue."

Prejudice in a Polish enclave

In many ways, the controversy is simply a symptom of a community's growing discomfort with its own evolution - and more particularly, a sign of just how deep the distrust of Muslim cultures has grown in the wake of Sept. 11 and the war with Iraq.

Hamtramck has long prided itself on being a "touch of Europe in America," an enclave of pirogis and polkas in the midst of Detroit. A statue of Pope John Paul II, next to a mural of Poles dancing in Krakow, stands in the center of town, and some storeowners greet customers in Polish.

Over the past decade, however, Hamtramck has changed. It's still the first stop for many immigrants, but now they come from Bangladesh, Yemen, Bosnia, Somalia, and Pakistan, as well as from Eastern Europe. Muslims make up a third or more of the population, and shops selling halal meat and Bengali spices are as common as the Polish bakeries.

These latest arrivals have been hard for some longtime residents to accept. And the prayer controversy has stirred up an old uneasiness with, even hostility toward, a culture and religion that remain mysterious to many here.

"Why can't they look at their watches like everyone else?" asks one middle-aged woman, walking her long-haired chihuahua. "This is going to split the community and cause a lot of havoc."

To immigrants, too, the clash brings up issues of assimilation, even beyond the calls' religious import. "They just want to advertise their religion and show everybody the Islamic religion is stronger than others," says Zbigniew Malkiewicz, a construction worker who came here from Poland 30 years ago. "If they want to do this, they should go back to their own country."

Reverberations of Sept. 11

Such anger saddens many in Hamtramck, both Muslims and non-Muslims, and points to a divide they say has widened in the past three years. "This is the reality of Sept. 11," says Imad Hamad, director of the Michigan branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The concept of intolerance and the high sensitivity is spreading so fast."

People are disappointed, too, with how the media has fanned the flames. Since the first city council meeting on this subject three weeks ago, many say, the media has leapt aboard the idea of a town taken over by Muslims, even relaying incorrect information - as when journalists have referred to local Muslims as Arabs, or played tapes of "calls to prayer" that are actually religious songs or verses of the Koran.

Shahab Ahmed, Hamtramck's first Muslim member of the city council, says most of the 1,000 or so vitriolic calls and e-mails he's received are from nonresidents. At a recent city council hearing, dissenters came from as far away as Ohio.

The issue before the city council was simple, Mr. Ahmed explains. The previous local noise ordinance exempted religious institutions from noise restrictions. This was simply an opportunity for the council to have some say in regulating the calls to prayer - restricting the hours and decibel level, for instance. "Then it turned into a huge religious issue that I never dreamed of."

For now, some here are suggesting lawsuits or a referendum. Karen Majewski, the council's president, hopes it doesn't come to that, widening the debate into "a civil rights issue rather than a noise issue."

She's confident that once the media spotlight moves on, and the calls to prayer become a daily reality - they can begin 20 days from the ordinance's adoption - the issue may blow over. "People will quickly come around," says Ms. Majewski. "They're used to dealing with each other. Once they hear the call, and realize there is cooperation from the mosques, things will die down."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...