Calls for change to Indonesia's mosque loudspeakers

For Beringin Kusuma whose living quarters are only a short distance from a mosque, the Muslim month of Ramadan is not only a time for fasting, but also for plugging his ears before bed every night.

Year-round, like most urban dwellers in the world's largest Muslim nation that boasts 800,000 mosques, the 22-year-old university student has to contend with the "azan" that begins at dawn and calls worshippers to prayer five times a day.

But during Ramadan the mosques go into overdrive. Their crackling speakers blare out not only the azan, but also calls to worshippers to wake before the pre-dawn sahur breakfast that begins the day-long fast, and Koran recitations that go on almost all day and night.

"It's worse during Ramadan," complained Kusuma, who for the past three years has lived in a rented room only 20 metres (65 feet) from the closest mosque.

In Indonesia, Ramadan -- a time of year when Muslims forgo food, drink and sex between dawn and dusk -- started on July 21. Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the fasting month, falls on August 19. Dates may vary elsewhere.

But while it is regarded as one of the most spiritual periods in the Islamic calendar, for many it is also the most noisy.

"Most people wake up just before 4:30 am for a quick sahur, but the speakers start calling the people to wake up at 2:30 am ," said Kusuma.

"They repeat it many times, along with Koran recitations -- and then comes the azan at dawn," he said.

Kusuma compares the sound to "someone screaming in my ear" and says he usually tries to return home after 9pm when at least the special evening Ramadan prayers are over.

"If it wasn't for ear plugs, I wouldn't get a wink of sleep during all of Ramadan."

With hundreds of thousands of mosques in this nation of 240 million people, most city and town dwellers are accosted every dawn by the intermingling cacophony blaring out of three or four mosques, each broadcasting its own azan.

For some people -- especially non-Muslim foreigners unfamiliar with the routine and naive enough to rent a place without checking the distance from the closest mosque -- it can all be too much.

Two years ago, an American running a guesthouse near a mosque on the tourist island of Lombok snapped during a prayer reading and yanked the wire connecting the speaker. He was sentenced to five months in jail for blasphemy.

Anita Rizki, a 22-year-old secretary at a private hospital in Jakarta, said the mosques were bad enough throughout the year, but became impossible during Ramadan, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.

"I feel guilty for my non-Muslim neighbours, because the noises keep them up all night," said Rizki, who lives 100-metres from a large mosque.

"People have different faiths. Our devotion doesn't need to be broadcast through a loudspeaker. It only shows a lack of religious tolerance."

According to ear specialist Ronny Suwento, "the noise level can reach dangerous decibels for those who live very close to mosques, and that can cause hearing loss over time."

Historically, the prayer leader at a mosque would climb the minaret and deliver the call to prayer without amplification.

Kusuma, the university student, said he believed that mosque loudspeakers are outdated.

"It doesn't work at all in our times. Thanks to technology, we can now even download an alarm which plays the prayer call at its designated time."

Mosques are still governed by regulations from the religious affairs ministry that are more than three decades old. The 1978 directives allow the use of loudspeakers for calls to prayer, Koran recitations as well as sermons and religious gatherings.

Earlier this year, Vice President Boediono called on mosques to tone down their noise and asked religious authorities for new guidelines on the use of loudspeakers.

"The soft sounds of azan heard faintly at a distance resonate more strongly and reach deeper into the heart than those that are loud, scratchy and too close to our ears," he said in April.

Boediono's remarks received mixed reactions, with some people berating him for saying that prayers to Allah should be toned down, and others praising his bravery for speaking out on a sensitive topic. But his comments encouraged others to speak up.

Before the beginning of Ramadan earlier this month, a governor in central Kalimantan province asked local mosques to refrain from having their soundsystems working overtime.

"Don't use loudspeakers when reciting the Koran. Take pity on people of different faiths who want to rest," local media quoted Achmad Diran as saying.

But Nasir Zubaidi, deputy secretary-general of the Indonesia Ulema Council that is the nation's top Islamic body, said that mosque loudspeakers were important, especially to women at home.

"It's good to use loudspeakers to broadcast Islamic sermons. Women at home can listen while they are cooking so that they will eventually become enlightened."

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