Written by Maria Celander
Prayer calls from minarets all over Sweden can become a reality before long. The mosque in the Stockholm suburb of Botkyrka leads the way. After an initial green light by lower bureaucrats, the City Council of Botkyrka township will make a final decision in the matter next month.
The outcome of that decision could set a precedent for other townships in Sweden. Imam Abdul Rashid Mohammed of the Gothenburg mosque has already made clear that his parish intends to follow suit if Botkyrka gets the go ahead.
– Absolutely, the prayer is incomplete without the prayer calls. It’s a religious tradition going back to the birth of Islam and should be every mosque’s right. We’re going to address this matter as soon as possible, he says to news daily Göteborgs-Posten.
When Botkyrka’s Planning Board processed the request recently, Stefan Dayne of the Christian Democratic Party was the only one who opposed it. Dayne says his opposition was mainly due to the fact that he doesn’t regard this as a matter local politicians can or should decide.
– We can’t rule on this matter and it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to invest any more time in discussing it. If anything, it’s a police or state matter, the township politicians have no competence to make a decision like this, says Stefan Dayne.
So, the legal position is unclear. The township’s local regulations state that “information, commercial messages, propaganda or other messages directed at persons in public places, cannot be disseminated through loudspeakers or other such devices without police authorization”. However, legal experts are of the opinion that local regulations cannot override freedom of speech, and furthermore, since a mosque doesn’t require authorization there shouldn’t be anything stopping public prayer calls. Only if and when the sound becomes a nuisance, can the police intervene and start an inquiry.
The matter of prayer calls has sparked heated discussions in Sweden. One side in the debate emphasizes freedom of religion and freedom of speech and claims that prayer calls are quite comparable to the ringing of church bells. The other side consists of those who stress every person’s right in a secular society not to have religious messages shoved in their face and the fact that prayer calls contain a spoken message, whereas ringing church bells does not.
– If one was to proclaim “God is almighty” or “Jesus is the son of God” from church towers, I think that would be widely regarded as offensive and disruptive in a society where freedom of religion also entails the freedom not to believe. We have people on the run from religious oppression here, how will they feel about prayer calls? And how are the different factions of islam represented? How would people with a negative experiences of the church feel about a message equivalent to “Jesus is the son of God”, broadcast from church towers? asks Annika Borg, priest in the Church of Sweden and Doctor of Theology.
Her priest colleague Dag Sandahl is also skeptical and stresses that a more critical dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in Sweden is needed. He feels that Muslim prayer calls in a country where 80 percent of the population is baptized Lutheran Christians and the head of state is required to be a Christian, is completely alien.
– Maybe it’s high time to get some experienced Christian missionaries to come back home from abroad, people who are used to working in Muslim countries and know how to communicate? One must remember that we are not allowed to ring church bells or even have a sign that says “church” in many Muslim countries, and we all know we have fundamentally different views on many things. There are big differences in how we look at womens’ role in society for instance, and we should be able to address those differences, says Dag Sandahl.
Botkyrka Islamic Culture Society President Ismail Okur (see photo), the man who penned the request now being considered by the township, doesn’t think that the argument that Sweden has been predominantly Christian for a thousand years holds water.
– We have freedom of religion in Sweden, it’s a democratic and free country. I’m not put off by church bells, everything is beautiful in its own way, he says to Dispatch International.
He points out that the proposal at hand only asks for one prayer call a week, for Friday prayer, and is not to be regarded as a first step towards the five daily prayer calls practiced in Muslim countries. He claims to be misquoted by the Christian paper Dagen, who recently credited him with saying that “We have to start somewhere. That would have been too much to begin with (five prayer calls a day, ed.) ”. In talking to Dispatch International, Ismail Okur denies saying anything of the kind.
– No, no, there is no need for that. Friday prayer is special because a very large group of people gather for that, maybe about a thousand on a regular Friday. People can get stuck in the parking lot and then it’s useful to know that the service is starting, says Okur.
As for the argument that the Muslim prayer call contains a message, Ismail Okur comments:
– It’s not a political message, just “God is greatest and Muhammad is his prophet, time for prayer”, something to that effect. Nothing offensive.
Facts: About the proposal
Option 1: Calling to prayer every Friday in conjunction with Friday prayer.
Option 2: If this isn’t possible, calling to prayer on the first Friday of every month.
Option 3: Two public calls to prayer per year.
The Islamic Cultural Society writes that the prayer calls are of a significant symbolic importance, equivalent of church bells in churches. The decibel level is lower than that of church bells and the duration is about the same. As there are no residential buildings close by, no neighbors can be disturbed by the sound. Instead the Society hopes that this will “create very positive thoughts around the area, not just in Botkyrka but all over Sweden”.