March 26, 2007

Attention blogosphere: keep your xenophobia out of my neighborhood

A story in my local newspaper about a mosque a few blocks away from me has gotten some attention from the Islamophobic wingnuts. Apparently some of my neighbors are "irked" (or, as the nutjobs have it, tormented) by the call to prayer that is broadcast five times a day.

Personally, I like hearing it. It's at least as aesthetically pleasing as (and less frequent than) the bells on the Catholic church, and a lot better than the air raid siren that goes off every Friday to remind Orthodox Jews that Shabbat is approaching (as if they didn't know). More importantly, that's the kind of neighborhood I want to live in: one in which a diversity of cultures make their presence known. Knowing that some of my neighbors are taking time out of their day to pray (or are preparing to light candles) helps me feel connected to them. That's part of what makes it a neighborhood. It's not at all surprising to me that the people complaining about this issue hail from North Dakota, Indonesia, Australia and, um, East Squatanpoo.

Some of the people up in arms about this are the same ones who complain about Nativity scenes on public property, which is at least somewhat consistent (though the call is broadcast from private property) but many others are the same ones who become outraged about the War on Christmas — although I guess that's consistent in its own way. That latter group also links this to the encroachment of Islamist values on Western democratic ones. During the Muhammad cartoon controversy I wrote extensively about how I think this is a real phenomenon and one that must be resisted, but in this case it simply doesn't apply. There's a fundamental difference between religious believers wanting to express themselves and religious believers wanting to limit the expression of others. For years my neighborhood church had a huge sign that said, "Abortion stops a human heart," and while I often fantasized about getting a can of spray paint and adding, "Or your money back," [hat tip: Beth Sherman] it never seriously occurred to me that the church should be forced to remove its message — which was far less central to its mission than Muslim call to prayer.

I find it hard to believe that anyone who is bothered by this is reacting simply to the volume of the recording, rather than its message. It's less loud than car alarms and not much louder than those 25-cent kiddie rides that they have in front of some stores. It also lasts for under a minute. [Update: New York City "defines offensive sounds as noises made between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that are seven decibels above the surrounding sound of an area. Between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the threshold would rise to 10 decibels above the ambient noise of an area — noise that is, say, louder than the din on an elevated subway platform or substantially louder than the sounds heard at any normal Manhattan intersection." There is no way the Adhan (which broadcasts only during the day) is that loud. If it repeated incessently, other regulations would cover it, which is why Bloomberg caused a mini scandal a few years back by attempting (unsuccessfully) to silence ice cream trucks. I was all for that, but most of the city -- Adhan opponents presumably among them -- lambasted the mayor for Hating Children].

But then, the mild complaints in the article of people who actually live here are nothing compared to the vitriol of those who have never been to Brooklyn, and probably never met a Muslim, in their lives. That's all anyone needs to know.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Oh, that's where the call to prayer was coming from! When I lived in your neighbourhood, I always wondered. I also always wondered what the hell that air raid siren was.

The call to prayer is pretty, isn't it? I lived far enough away, though, that it wouldn't ever have woken me up early in the morning. Perhaps people who live right by the mosque have a reason to be irked if they're consistently woken up by it? Or is the morning call to prayer quieter?

They skip the morning one so as not to disturb people.

Oh for the love of Pete, then. People really need to relax.

As for that abortion sign, what bothered me most about it was that the sentence was syntactically ambiguous. They're goin' to hell for that, as far as I'm concerned.

The issue of Nativity Scenes on public property is about the Constitutional issue of State sponsored religion. The issue of broadcasting calls to worship in a neighborhood is about noise or, possibly, free speech. I'm not arguing either one, just disagreeing with your premise that supporting one is consistent with supporting the other.

Hence my parenthetical qualifier. All I meant was that these critics object to any intrusion of religion into their lives, as opposed to those people who support the promotion of Christianity but not of Islam.

I'm not trying to speak for the people in the article, but personally, I don't care what the content is - Call to Prayer, church bells, car alarms, frat party. Your freedom to swing your noise ends at my eardrum (when situated on my property). Pretty basic.

Vance, if you can't tell the difference between church bells and a frat party... you've been to the wrong frat parties.

And this lovely Spring morning requires me to ask how you feel about birds singing, 'cause they're much louder than the mosque. Can we shut them up too?

That's ridiculous. There's no social contract in which birds are involved.

And content differences between noises are irrelevant. I love the sound of church bells. But my personal preference for that content doesn't make the noise pollution defensible on a societal level.

The problem is that these are relics of a time when everyone in hearing distance was expected to be part of a community which would share such preferences, and if you didn't you were damned anyway so not worth considering. But in multicultural cities that model is an anachronism and leads to legitimate conflicts that can't be dismissed as simple xenophobia.

Got it: you hate birds.

Of course anyone who dislikes the auditory bustle of the big city can always move to the suburbs of Philadelphia, but if what you're saying is that, if you lived here, you would petition for the strict enforcement of noise regulations on all parties, then I will grant you your argument. And I look forward to seeing you on the front page of the New York Post as the guy who silenced the city's church bells.

Not that I'm even sure the Adhan does violate noise regs. (It does not; see update) It doesn't seem that loud to me, but maybe that's because I'm farther away and because I think it's a lovely sound.

But I'm still comfortable charging xenophobia because these church bells have been ringing in this neighborhood since at least the 1930s and no one has ever complained about them. Nor about the Shabbat siren, as far as I know (though that may be because those who might have no idea what it is).

Chanting in Arabic, however, merits complaints to the police.

However, I do know you are not xenophobic, because during the cartoon debate, you actually supported the right of Islamists to stifle free expression in the name of sensitivity. Maybe if the birds tried to stop you from publishing your cartoons, you'd like them again too.

You're trying to have it both ways, Daniel, "joking" about birds while pretending there's any underlying logic there. There isn't, so let's drop that angle.

And no, I'm not saying I would petition for anything. People in this country can legally deny the holocaust for all I care - that doesn't mean it's right, or that it's not hideously offensive.

I'm saying there is no inherent right for any private party or group to force others on their own property to listen to anything.

And just as you're caricaturing my position on the cartoons, you seem to have missed my very first words: "I'm not trying to speak for the people in the article." Obviously some people who object to certain noises may be xenophobes. What I am objecting to is your collapsing all objections into that category; I'm saying there is a legitimate objection that has nothing to do with content. (Although, truth be told, I think ice-cream trucks should be singled out for extraordinary punishment.)

Yes, I was set off not so much by the people in the article as the absolutely vile comments from the blogosphere. I already acknowledged that you're making a different, and arguably justifiable, case.

Arguably. I'm not a lawyer, but I'll bet there is a First Amendment rationale for allowing that the mosque to broadcast at decibles that would be forbidden to a frat party, based on freedom of religious expression. Just as, for instance, the police can not break up a noisy political protest on the grounds that people in houses along the route are "forced" to listen to it.

Not trying to pick a fight, just thinking out loud.

Likewise, I'm not trying to hijack this thread. I'm just talking about a great annoyance that also happens to annoy those mentioned above, for whatever reasons.

From my perspective, again, it's not a question of legal or illegal. BUT since you mention it, the carving out of "religious expression" exceptions to otherwise prohibited behavior is inherently fraught with problems and in practice is the basis for severe discrimination by the religious majority.

Religious expression is already given higher protection than, say, selling ice cream, thanks to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. As you say, this is fraught with problems, which is why a lot of judges have spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to draw the line between not prohibiting the free exercise of religion and not establishing a religion. And the resulting rule is pretty much this: the state can -- and sometimes must -- afford religious speech/conduct more protection than non-religious speech/conduct, but the state cannot favor one religion over another.

So the mosque might be able to make a case that it needs to broadcast the Adhan at higher volume than would normally be permitted, but churches and synagogues would have to get the same exemption for their bells and sirens. (As Daniel noted, this isn't an issue here, since the mosque is broadcasting within the existing noise limits.) Giving a exemption to religions opens up the risk that the religious majority will use it to discriminate against the non-religious. But allowing no religious exemption opens up a greater risk that the majority will ban activities central to minority religions under the guise of a law that never mentions religion at all.

You're right that there's "no inherent right for any private party or group to force others on their own property to listen to anything." I can't barge into your house and force you to listen to me. But I can stand on the public sidewalk -- or in my own private house next door -- and speak, and there's a chance you'll hear me whether I want you to or not. Exactly how quiet I have to be before my speech rights interfere with your privacy rights is something that gets worked out differently in different places. The NYC standard sounds like a pretty reasonable compromise, even though I'd rather not hear church bells on the one day a week I get to sleep late, or ice cream trucks at any time.

I live too far away from the mosque to be affected by this, since I've only heard it when I was desperate enough to shop at the Foodtown on McDonald, and I didn't mind the sound. But I like hearing outside noises. It's one reason why I live in a city and not a suburb. And one of the things I miss most about my old East Village apartment is everything I could hear from other apartments and yards -- the Hispanic couple who bickered loudly, the white couple who bickered quietly, the aspiring DJ, the sports fans who were always rooting for the opposite team from me, etc. I know a lot of people would find these sounds annoying, just like many people enjoy the sounds of church bells and ice cream trucks. That's why we have standards based on volume, not content.

One of my favorite things I could hear from my former apartment on the Upper West Side was the regular chanting of a neighbor who held Nichiren Buddhist meetings in his apartment. Loved the lulling sound of the "Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō," even though I think the religion is the equivalent of a cosmic ATM machine.

I AM a lawyer...content of this thread aside, the original post drew a parallel between a potentially-offensive written message ("Abortion stops etc.") and sounds that have a religious intent. At common law, intrusions of sound and smell are treated somewhat differently than those of sight, in that these externalities could have a physical effect, rather than just an aesthetic or emotional one. It doesn't matter that the impact is disproportionate: cf. the "eggshell skull" principle--If I strike someone will a freak anatomical vulnerability and kill them, I am civilly liable for the injury, despite the fact that the blow would have no catastrophic effect on an average person. Similarly, if I require total silence in order to sleep, my neighbor is liable for the health effects of constant niose, even if the noise doesn't bother others.

Obviously, this common law principle is shaped by legislation, case law, and custom, and may not benefit the complainant in this case, as there is a civil code that permits noises up to a certain decibel level. My original point, though, is that the analogy to visual intrusions breaks down.

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