indonesias mosque loudspeakers continue to spark controversy - Indonesia’s Mosque Loudspeakers Continue to Spark Controversy

In late March, the mayor of a city within the greater Jakarta area publicly opposed a recent circular issued by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which regulates the volume level of mosque loudspeakers  broadcasting the azan, the call to prayer for Muslims, which marks the time for obligatory prayers five times a day). The mayor of Depok, a conservative Muslim area, argued that the regulation – which, among other points, limits the loudspeaker volume up to 100 decibels – is too much. He argued that regulating the matter, which might affect loudspeaker operations in the over 500,000 mosques sprawled across the archipelago, should be left in the hands of local people.

A week later, the religious minister rebuffed the mayor’s criticism, arguing that even Saudi Arabia, where Islam originated, considered as a holy land for all Muslims in the world, has regulated the matter. Hence, he argued that there is nothing wrong in regulating the use of mosque loudspeakers.

This public spat, which involves two high-ranking public officials, shows how loudspeaker volume at mosques has increasingly become a mainstream issue in Indonesia. Although the use of loudspeakers at mosques has been ubiquitous in the country since the 1950s, public concern began to appear only in 1978 when the Suharto government issued a circular to address the noise level of mosque loudspeakers. The Ministry of Religious Affairs issued the circular after it found that the loudspeakers, which are used to amplify the sound of azan, were often improperly used. For example, either the loudspeakers were too loud or they were out of tune; hence the Suharto government argued the loudspeakers would tarnish the image of Islam and disturb people who were, for example, resting, especially non-Muslims.

The 1978 circular instructed Ministry of Religious Affairs staff across the archipelago to provide guidance to mosque committees in using the loudspeakers properly. However, since the majority of mosques in Indonesia are run by people and not by the government, the circular was not effective, since it was not legally binding.

As a result, the mosque loudspeaker problem persisted. Social discontent about the volume of mosque loudspeakers, especially among non-Muslim Indonesians and foreigners, remained unaddressed. The social discontent has rarely caused serious social conflict, given that people, especially non-Muslims, are usually aware that it is a sensitive issue. Often, they chose not to over-react when dealing with this issue, or just keep quiet, to avoid facing social backlash from the country’s majority Muslim community.

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But, in some cases, disputes over mosque loudspeakers can trigger serious and even deadly conflicts. In 2015, one person was killed and 12 others were injured in predominantly Christian Tolikara regency, Papua province, after the Christians’ protest over the use of loudspeakers during Eid al-Fitr prayers turned ugly. The Christians said the sound of the loudspeaker disturbed their own religious event, which was being held concurrently near the area where the Eid al-Fitr prayer was also in progress.

In 2016, a riot occurred in Medan, North Sumatra province, after a Chinese Indonesian woman complained to local mosque officials that the call for prayer, amplified by a mosque loudspeaker near her house, was too loud. Irresponsible parties uploaded the heated argument between the woman and the mosque officials to social media, and provoked local people to commit violence. As result, local Muslims burned down at least 11 houses of worship that belonged to the Chinese Indonesian community in the area.

Government officials understand that this issue can seriously damage social stability, as exhibited in the Tolikara and Medan cases. But authorities have so far refrained from taking a stern approach since it is sensitive issue that can be easily manipulated by politicians aiming to provoke people’s Islamic sentiment in order to dent the government’s legitimacy. Hence, various administrations, including those of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, have chosen to resort to persuasion to address the issue. Jusuf Kalla – who was vice president in the Jokowi administration between 2014 and 2019, and who has been chairing the Indonesian Mosque Council since 2012 – often appealed more forcefully to mosque committees and people at large to reduce the noise level of mosque loudspeakers, but his appeals largely fell on deaf ears. The practice of setting mosque loudspeakers at high volume levels continues in many parts of Indonesia.

The recent circular, issued on February 18, 2022 by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, was the latest and strongest effort by the government to address the issue. However, just like previous circulars, it is unlikely to be effective due to the absence of any punishment mechanism and a long-standing belief among the Muslim community that raising the volume of loudspeakers is encouraged by Islamic teaching because it supports missionary activities.

Less than a month after the circular was issued, a commotion occurred in Pekanbaru city, Riau province, after a Muslim man, whose 3-year-old child was sick, protested the noise coming from a mosque loudspeaker. His complaint resulted in a strong backlash from his neighbors and local mosque committee. A fight was prevented only after the police and the head of neighborhood unit came to the scene to resolve the problem. Such incidents can be expected to recur in the future. In the continuing azan affair, people are still negotiating their place in the Indonesian soundscape.