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Uproar over prayer calls in Muslim Morocco

The rising decibel level of the muezzins' calls, summoning the Muslim faithful to daily prayers, is deepening fault lines between a government drive to modernize and a wave of rigorous political Islam.
Morocco Muting the Muezzins
Morocco, a country of 33 million people, gets more than 7 million tourists a year, and there are worries that some may be put off by the five heavily amplified calls a day to prayer, each lasting five minutes, to summon the Muslim faithful to prayers. Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The muezzins' calls echo well before daybreak, summoning the Muslim faithful to daily prayers and reminding foreign tourists in the Moroccan capital how far they are from home.

But the rising decibel level is deepening fault lines between a government drive to modernize and a wave of rigorous political Islam.

Morocco, a country of 33 million people, gets more than 7 million tourists a year. And there are worries that some may be put off by the five heavily amplified calls a day, each lasting five minutes, to "hasten to the prayer, hasten to the prayer."

Muslim purists counter that authorities are compromising religion to please Westerners and the country's liberal elite.

The frictions are happening in a country that is considered moderate on matters of religion and is a U.S. ally and at a time when there are fears that al-Qaida is establishing itself in North Africa.

Morocco has lately been shaken by two different cases in which the government, or wealthy Westerners, have been accused of plotting to force down the volume on the muezzins who make the call to prayer.

Nouzha Skalli, the minister for family and social affairs, is accused of seeking legislation to lower the volume on muezzins in tourist zones.

Newspapers have asked whether Skalli, a feminist and former Communist, is trying to curb Islam and impose secularism on the overwhelmingly Muslim society. Some hard-line imams have cursed her during public sermons.

"It made huge waves, even a tsunami," Skalli said in an Associated Press interview.

She wouldn't say what exactly she had proposed, because it happened at a closed-door Cabinet meeting. But she denied suggesting a law to muzzle the muezzins and said her statements were taken out of context. "It was a complete manipulation," she said.

Skalli views her job of promoting women's rights as part of a wider struggle between two models of society: one of "modernity, equality and openness" versus "closing-off and backwardness." She suspects she was targeted "because I'm a woman and because I represent modernity."

'Living in the medina'
Earlier this year Annie Laforet, a Frenchwoman, was blamed for the closure of a mosque next to the luxury guest house she runs in the old town, or medina, of picturesque Marrakech. The claim, which Laforet denied, caused outrage in the local press, and Laforet says she received death threats on Islamist Web sites.

Local authorities backed her denial and then reopened the mosque, from which the prayer call now blares every morning about 4:30 a.m., and then again an hour later.

"It's a bit loud, but it's fine," Laforet said. "Tourists know it's part of living in the medina."

Still, Mohammed Darif, a Moroccan political scientist and expert on Islamism, says hard-liners increasingly are depicting the tourist influx as a threat to Muslim values.

The wealthy may support the government's pro-Western and liberal values, he said. "But the Morocco of poverty, backward countryside and urban slums is increasingly averse to tourism and the internationalized elite."

New phenomenon
He said some Moroccans complain of walled-off resorts that make them feel unwelcome.

"It's discrimination by wealth, and tourism is highlighting the sore," he said.

Olivier Roy, French author of "Globalized Islam," says the tensions are a new phenomenon, and that the former French colony has "a history of cohabitation" in which Western hippies of the 1960s and '70s were welcome visitors.

Roy says louder calls to prayer are a product of Salafism, a rigorous strain of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia.

"Thirty years ago you could barely hear the muezzin," he said.

Also, he said, the audio technology used for prayer calls has improved, and imams are in competition to fill their mosques.

Islam is the state religion in Morocco and the king is the "Commander of the Believers." The state trains and appoints all imams, but tends to avoid dictating standards of public behavior.

Criticizing any form of Islamic practice is difficult in the Arab world because no Muslim wants to stand accused of being irreligious, Roy said.

But as conservatives have become more outspoken, so have moderates. For a Cabinet minister to say anything critical of prayer calls "would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago," he said.

Miloud al-Atifi is an imam who doubles as the muezzin in his small mosque in Sale, a poor suburb of Rabat. He takes a benign view of the muezzin uproar.

"The prayer cleanses the soul, it's fundamental," he explained, but loudspeakers are simply a technical aid and can be toned down if, for instance, they're near a hospital.

They are helpful in competing with honking cars, he says, but nowadays believers can have the call piped in on their cell phones. He also notes that the Council of the Ulemas, Morocco's highest theological authority, has held that the pre-dawn prayer call should be a hushed one.

As for tourist zones, the imam doesn't think there's a debate.

"If there are only non-Muslims around, it makes no sense to even have a call for prayer."