This CBS News clip from 2004 describes an (at the time) ongoing dispute about the Islamic call to prayer, or azan, in Hamtramck, Michigan. For six months in 2004, controversy raged in Hamtramck, receiving national attention, as residents debated a proposed amendment that would exempt the azan from the local noise ordinance. The call to prayer functioned as a flashpoint in disputes about the integration of Muslims into this historically Polish-Catholic dominated urban enclave. No one openly contested Muslims’ right to worship in their mosques, but some neighbors resisted and regarded as inappropriate this public pronouncement of Islamic presence that audibly intruded upon public space.
Christian and Muslim communities have long used auditory announcements, such as church bells and prayer calls, to mark social and geographic boundaries. The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer even described parishes as “acoustic communities,” constituted by those within auditory range of its church bells, its boundaries mapped aurally rather than visually. But such an understanding assumes a homogenous listening community, a uniform audience of willing hearers who interpret the meaning of these public pronouncements in similar ways. In the pluralistic public spaces of American life, these sounds reach multiple, heterogeneous audiences—both intended and unintended, willing and unwilling—who hear and respond to them in different ways. These public sounds mediate contact among diverse religious communities.
Critics of the azan described it as “noise” and argued that they should not “have to” listen to it. Proponents, in turn, argued that the azan was no different from church bells, and moreover, that religious sounds could not possibly constitute noise.
“Noise” is a funny thing. On the one hand, it refers simply to loud sounds. But more typically, it refers to sounds that are unwanted – or, in the words of Peter Bailey, to sounds that sound “out of place.” Sounds are not inherently noisy. Instead, for sounds to become noise, one must take note of them.
But which sounds were noticed in Hamtramck? For the azan’s critics, it was only the sounds of newcomers—those sounds that seemed different, foreign, “out of place”—that could be heard as noise. When its proponents analogized the azan to church bells, however, they encouraged Hamtramck residents to take note of the bells whose sounds had previously faded into the background, unmarked and unnoticed, taken for granted even as they participated in the acoustic construction of public space. Calling attention to church bells made audible the ways that Hamtramck’s public space already was shaped by the sounds of particularistic religious expression—and rendered these sounds similarly problematic. Significantly, some of the azan’s critics responded to this analogy by re-defining church bells as in fact “secular,” describing their function as marking secular time, rather than announcing times of sacred service. In other words, as soon as church bells were noticed, their public religious character could also become the cause of complaint. They, too, became potential sources of noise that had to be either secularized or silenced.
Attending to the ways that public sounds mediate contact among diverse religious communities thus encourages us to attend to attention. What can we learn from paying attention to attention, from studying what sounds people take note of? Why, we might ask, are certain sounds noticed and not others? In short, how does religion come to be heard not as religion but as noise?