Uproar over loud prayer calls in Muslim Morocco

The Associated Press
Saturday, August 9, 2008; 1:42 PM

RABAT, Morocco -- The muezzins' calls echo well before daybreak, summoning the Muslim faithful to daily prayers and reminding foreign tourists in the Moroccan capital how far they are from home.

But the rising decibel level is deepening fault lines between a government drive to modernize and a wave of rigorous political Islam.

Morocco, a country of 33 million people, gets more than 7 million tourists a year. And there are worries that some may be put off by the five heavily amplified calls a day, each lasting five minutes, to "hasten to the prayer, hasten to the prayer."

Muslim purists counter that authorities are compromising religion to please Westerners and the country's liberal elite.

The frictions are happening in a country that is considered moderate on matters of religion and is a U.S. ally and at a time when there are fears that al-Qaida is establishing itself in North Africa.

Morocco has lately been shaken by two different cases in which the government, or wealthy Westerners, have been accused of plotting to force down the volume on the muezzins who make the call to prayer.

Nouzha Skalli, the minister for family and social affairs, is accused of seeking legislation to lower the volume on muezzins in tourist zones.

Newspapers have asked whether Skalli, a feminist and former Communist, is trying to curb Islam and impose secularism on the overwhelmingly Muslim society. Some hard-line imams have cursed her during public sermons.

"It made huge waves, even a tsunami," Skalli said in an Associated Press interview.

She wouldn't say what exactly she had proposed, because it happened at a closed-door Cabinet meeting. But she denied suggesting a law to muzzle the muezzins and said her statements were taken out of context. "It was a complete manipulation," she said.

Skalli views her job of promoting women's rights as part of a wider struggle between two models of society: one of "modernity, equality and openness" versus "closing-off and backwardness." She suspects she was targeted "because I'm a woman and because I represent modernity."

Earlier this year Annie Laforet, a Frenchwoman, was blamed for the closure of a mosque next to the luxury guest house she runs in the old town, or medina, of picturesque Marrakech. The claim, which Laforet denied, caused outrage in the local press, and Laforet says she received death threats on Islamist Web sites.

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