Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

Oxford Skyline by Ed Webster

Its been a while since a good multicultural conundrum came along to bother us. For a while, I thought that the issue of the mosque in Oxford that wants to broadcast its call to prayer might be one such issue, but while reading a couple of articles in order to write a blog, I came across this quote from the Telegraph:

“We want to fix a loudspeaker to our minaret to broadcast our call to prayer. We would like to have three two-minute calls a day, but if that is not accepted then we would like to have it at least on Fridays.

“In Islamic counties the call is loud so people are reminded to come to prayer. We do not need the volume to be loud, that can be adjusted because our members have a time-table for the prayers. But we want to have the call in some form because it is our tradition.”

Now this doesn’t look like a culture clash to me, so much as groups engaging in a dialogue with a local authority, just as they should in a liberal democracy. It is being portrayed as an example of the Muslim community making unreasonable demands, when in fact it is merely a polite request, and a modest one at that. Its obvious that the Friday broadcast will be approved, and tolerated, and finally accepted as part of the city, just like football stadiums, nightclubs, and cathedral bells.

Some, such as Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today, complain that this particular addition to Oxford’s sound-scape amounts to an erosion of British, Christian culture. Yet I do not see the validity in this argument. First, we know that culture is a nebulous term and cannot be protected in the way Finkelstein suggests. Adding a new tradition for Oxford does not dilute or those already in existence – it is not as if noise is regulated by a carbon-like trading scheme. Nor is it the case, as Finkelstein seems to suggest, that the existence of a call to prayer will somehow undermine Anglicanism. Religions are not chain pubs trying to out-do one another with larger and brighter advertisements of cheap beer. The call to prayer will not tempt customers aways from the church down the road (and in any case, the wine they serve in the mosque is horrible).

If anything, a new sound in the mix causes us to notice and appreciate the others already there. In this sense, the muzezzin’s call is a piece of genuine Eastern spice.

Second, if anywhere in the country should have a Call to Prayer, its Oxford. The city of dreaming spires is well known for its theological heritage, from medieval times up to the present day. It has been a centre for the study of Islam, the Orient, and Arabic for centuries.

To my mind, only thing offensive about the Call to Prayer is the often poor quality loudspeakers through which it is piped. This is not an offence to culture, but to the good taste for which we British are so well known. Oxford City Council should ensure that funds are available for a decent sound-system, which can do justice to the full-flavoured tones of the vocallist. Either that, or some kind of scholarship so that young men and women can train to sing the call unamplified, like opera singers, choirboys, and (so long as we are talking traditions, here) town criers.

(Cross posted at the Liberal Conspiracy)