Piety or noise nuisance? Indonesia tackles call to prayer volume backlash


JAKARTA: Every night at 3:00 a.m. M., Rina wakes up with a start to speakers so loud that she has developed an anxiety disorder: she cannot sleep, she is too nauseous to eat, but she is also too scared to complain why to do so. You could see her imprisoned or attacked.
The noisy neighbor is the local mosque in his suburb of Jakarta, and the clamoring sound is the call to prayer.
Both are so sacred in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, that criticizing them can lead to charges of blasphemy, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
“No one dares to complain here,” says Rina, a 31-year-old Muslim woman who uses a pseudonym in case of retaliation.
“The loudspeakers are not only used to call to prayer, but they are also used to wake people up between 30 and 40 minutes before the time of morning prayer,” he tells AFP, adding that he is in breaking point after enduring noise for six months.
Online complaints about loud speakers are on the rise, but the lack of anonymity and fear of a backlash means there are no reliable official statistics. Aware of the growing discord, the Indonesian Mosque Council (IMC) is deploying teams to address the sound systems of mosques across the country, but it is a sensitive issue.
The Southeast Asian archipelago was once hailed for its religious tolerance of people of many faiths living together, but there are concerns that its moderate type of Islam will be threatened by the hard line.
In 2018, a Buddhist woman was jailed after saying that the call to prayer “hurts my ears,” and earlier this year the actress and influencer Zaskia Mecca, who has 19 million followers on Instagram, was convicted online after the hijab-wearing Muslim criticized the volume of speakers at the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan.
Throughout the Islamic world, broadcasting the call to prayer and sermons through external speakers is considered a key pillar of Muslim identity, but the issue is deeply divisive.
In June, Saudi Arabian authorities ordered mosques to limit the volume of their external speakers to a third of their maximum capacity, citing concerns about noise pollution. There was an immediate backlash.
There are around 750,000 mosques throughout Indonesia – a medium-sized venue could have at least a dozen external speakers that broadcast the call to prayer five times a day.
For Rina, nighttime interruptions are affecting her health.
“I started having insomnia and I was diagnosed with anxiety disorders after they always woke me up. Now I’m trying to get as tired as possible, so I can sleep with the noise,” he explains.
Indonesian Mosque Council Chairman Jusuf Kalla estimates that around half of the country’s mosques have poor acoustics, compounding the noise problem.
“There is a tendency to turn the volume up so that the call to prayer can be heard by as many faithful as possible from afar because they consider it a symbol of greatness in Islam,” explained the coordinator of the IMC acoustics program Azis Muslim. .
The organization is fighting to minimize community tension with a free door-to-door service to repair sound systems and offer training: Some 7,000 technicians work on the project and have already fixed the audio in more than 70,000 mosques.
Although the program is not mandatory, the president of Jakarta’s Al-Ihkwan Mosque, Ahmad Taufik, used it because he wanted to ensure social harmony.
“The sound is softer now. That way it won’t bother people in the neighborhood, not to mention that we have a hospital behind the mosque,” he says.
But it has long been a contentious topic.
Then Vice President Boediono, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, faced condemnation when he suggested that the volume of the call to prayer be restricted in 2012.
Five years ago, hundreds of protesters set fire to nearly a dozen Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, after Meiliana, who is of Chinese descent and also has a name, criticized the volume of the call to prayer.
The mother of four was jailed for 18 months in 2018.
More recently, in May of this year, angry mobs marched into a luxury housing complex near Jakarta after a resident asked that the loudspeakers of the local mosque be removed from his home.
Police and the military were forced to intervene, and the man publicly apologized via social media to quell the outrage.
Indonesians often react angrily to such complaints because they mistakenly believe that the loudspeaker announcement is a religious requirement rather than a cultural expression, said Ali Munhanif of Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta.
“This is what happens when the advancement of technology meets excessive religious expression. If the call to prayer is not managed or not regulated, it could disturb social harmony,” he added.
Rina is convinced that she will not file any complaints.
“The case (of the imprisoned mother) shows us that reporting it will bring nothing but disaster,” he insists, adding: “I have no choice but to live with it. Or sell my house.”

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