'Swedish prayer call debate treats Islam like a static religion'

The Swedish debate about the call to prayer treats Islam like a static religion that is wholly resistant to change.

It relies on an image of Islam propagated by both the Counter Jihad movement and by fundamentalist Muslims.

Yet Islam and other world religions are constantly evolving and adapting to social norms. A historical example is that early Christians did not eat pork, but when Christianity spread to areas where rearing pigs was common, the traditions changed in order to adapt to new surroundings.

There are about 400,000 Muslims in Sweden. Only about one in four has access to a religious congregation. In others words, three in four Swedish Muslims don’t even go to a mosque.

Thus it’s a very vocal minority that is asking for the call to prayer. It’s a vocal minority that doesn’t want to adapt to the rest of society.

Multiculturalism is often used as an argument by those who desperately want to introduce the call to prayer in Sweden. But if that’s the argument, let’s look at other multicultural considerations:

If the call to prayer is allowed, what happens to Persian-Swedes who associate it with torture in Iran? What will it mean to women who have fought tooth and nail to get away from honour cultures and associate the call to prayer with patriarchal oppression?

They are also part of multicultural Sweden. Multiculturalism does not include only religious groups.

Swedish politicians need to know more about religions and cultures in order to make decisions in a multicultural society. Tolerance is good but tolerance without knowledge usually leads to stupidity, which is illustrated by the call to prayer debate that erupted following a local council's decision in September to scrap a 1994 prohibition against prayer calls at a mosque near Stockholm.

Multiculturalism in Sweden is not under threat just because there is no call to prayer. The majority of Muslims will continue to worship, just like they always have, without it. It is only the deeply conservative Muslims who expect society to adapt to their version of Islam who will be disappointed.

It is scandalous that politicians in a secular country listen to them, to a vocal minority that has no democratic mandate to represent all Muslims in Sweden.

We live in an era of mobile phones and computers that makes the original function of the call to prayer obsolete. It’s an odd notion that someone needs to scale a roof or climb a minaret to shout out “God is great” in order to assemble the congregation or remind people to pray.

The majority of Muslims are sensible enough to use digital devices for the call to prayer, rather than waking up the entire neighbourhood.

Furthermore, the perceived notion that the call to prayer is an essential part of Islam belongs to an exoticized and outdated view of Muslims harking back to the days of colonialism.

Politicians who fight for the call to prayer have seen far too many Indiana Jones films.

The call to prayer is also, in essence, problematic because it takes place several times a day, every day of the year.

If you want to introduce it you should first of all invite your neighbours to have a dialogue. Another reason to talk about it first is that making such a racket can trigger Islamophobia.

Call to prayer proponents usually refer to the church bells, but many of the churches were built when Swedish society was dominated by the Church of Sweden (Svenska kyrkan), and had weak democratic structures.

Today, however, Sweden is a democracy and its citizens are allowed to have an opinion when a religious institution wants to make noise in their neighbourhood. For example, the municipal environment office in Malmö decided in early 2011 that Saint Andrews (Sankt Andreas) Church had to reduce the volume of its chimes.

This is just one example of how one can confront a noise-polluting religious institution without creating too much drama.

A national debate has sprung up on this topic when it actually should concern the municipalities and their environment departments (miljöförvaltning). It has become a national debate because we still have politicians who do not understand that Sweden is secular and who have bought into the image of a static Islam, the Islam of fundamentalists.

Because the debate makes an issue out of something that does not need to be an issue, it risks legitimizing the vocal minority in the eyes of the majority of moderate Muslims.

If Swedish politicians insist on listening to those who do not want to adapt to society, then Sweden will soon face a ghettoized Islam that time and time again underlines its conflicts with the non-Muslim majority population.

The fact that many Swedish Muslims live in socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods tells us that the call to prayer is not and should not be treated as their main challenge.

Islam in Sweden will never look like Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Sweden has laws that regulate the call to prayer. There will always be people who report it as a noise pollutant to the environment office. There will always be people who protest it because their sick grandma has to rest in the afternoon and doesn’t want to be disturbed.

That they protest does not make them racists. It means that Sweden is a democratic and secular state where nothing, not even the call to prayer, is holy. People want peace and quiet, whether they are disturbed by the call to prayer or a raucous party next door.

A minority of Swedish Muslims and a few ignorant Swedish politicians have hijacked the issue and created a debate that is irrelevant to most Muslims in Sweden.

Let’s pull down the shutters on this debate and let the residents of Swedish municipalities across the country discuss and decide together whether the call to prayer is appropriate or if the religious person should instead use a more discrete tool to be reminded of when it is time to worship.

Persian-Swede Nima Gholam Ali Pour has a Master’s in International Migration and Ethnic Relations from Malmö University (Malmö Högskola)