Mosques turn down the volume in Azerbaijan

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May 26, 2007

BAKU --  After years of resonating with the Muslim call to prayer five times a day, the small loudspeakers attached to the minaret of the green-domed Gadji Sultanali mosque in central Baku have fallen silent.

Like mosques across Azerbaijan, Gadji Sultanali has been banned from using amplifiers to broadcast the Arabic call to prayer, a distinctive trademark of Muslim countries around the world.

Officials say the ban was necessary because the loud calls to prayer were disturbing residents, especially in the capital Baku. But some critics are decrying the move as a violation of religious freedoms.

Milling outside the Gadji Sultanali mosque after midday prayers, a handful of worshippers said the ban was nonsensical.

"Hearing the call to prayer is important, it is a reminder of your spiritual duty. But there is so much noise in the city that we won't be able to hear it if they do not use loudspeakers," said Aziz, 50, who refused to give his last name for fear of angering the authorities.

"This is ridiculous," he said. "Do they ban church bells from ringing in Christian countries?"

The Caucasus Muslim Administration, which manages Muslim affairs in Azerbaijan on behalf of the government, imposed the ban Wednesday, citing public disturbance considerations.

"We have had numerous complaints from the public about loud calls to prayer, from many sick people, elderly people, and children who were unable to rest," said Akif Agayev, a spokesman for the administration.

"This is in no way a ban on the call to prayer," he said. "We are talking only about the prohibition of using loudspeakers."

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich republic of 8.1 million on the shores of the Caspian Sea, has seen a revival of Muslim faith since it became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like neighboring Iran, Azerbaijan is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country.

Ironically, it is this revival that has convinced authorities to impose the ban, Agayev said. There are now so many mosques in Baku that rival broadcasts of the call to prayer are becoming a nuisance.

"There used to be few mosques in Baku, but now their number has increased so there is no longer any need to use loudspeakers," he said.

But Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the director of the non-governmental Center for Protection of Religious Freedom, said the ban infringed on believers' rights.

"This is absurd," said Ibrahimoglu, a cleric and human-rights activist who is officially banned from preaching.

He said the ban was a throwback to the "atheistic-Bolshevik attitudes toward religion" of the Soviet era. "I do not know of anywhere in the world where there is such a ban on reciting the call to prayer, neither in Europe or the US, let alone in other Muslim countries," he said.

Azerbaijan's secular government has struggled with how to deal with the country's Islamic revival.

After decades of Soviet rule, Azerbaijan is considered one of the most secular Muslim countries. But the number of devout Muslims is on the rise, thanks in part to Iran, which has funded the building of mosques and Islamic schools throughout the country.

Azerbaijani officials have warned that Iran is trying to export its version of radical Islam to Azerbaijan and have cracked down on religious groups the government claims preach extremist beliefs.

Critics say the government uses the potential threat of radicalism as a cover for persecuting political opponents. Western governments and international human-rights groups have repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of trampling on religious freedoms.

Inside the Gadji Sultanali mosque, Imam Ibrahim Yariyev denied any political motive behind the loudspeaker ban. He said the decision was instead rooted in Azerbaijan's firm commitment to democracy.

"We are not a religious country like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iran. We are a democratic country with the separation of church and state," he said. "We have to respect the rights of those who do not want to be disturbed. There are seven or eight mosques in this neighborhood alone - people will still hear the call to prayer."