The Purpose of Freedom is not Cultural Integration

17 October, 2018

My PhD research about public manifestations of Islam in the Netherlands started in 2011, right after the opening of the Essalam Mosque in Rotterdam, a mosque that the mosque’s proponents and opponents wrongly described as the “largest mosque of Europe”. I wanted to contribute to previous research about European mosque construction and decided to focus on controversies revolving around amplifying the adhan (Turkish: ezan), the Islamic call to prayer. At first, I doubted whether a study of the adhan was relevant; it seemed a marginal phenomenon in a strongly secularized society.

However, by assuming the identity of anthropologist and observing conversations between advocates and critics of an audible mosque, experiencing the resistance to the adhan firsthand, my eyes and ears were opened. The adhan turned out to be suitable for research on preconceived ideas and sentiments about land- and soundscapes, and thus to examine assumptions about culture, religion, and identity, the separation of church and state (scheiding van kerk en staat), and the red lines of religious tolerance.

Anyone interested in these matters is bound to learn about the decisive role played by the Dutch Constitution (de Grondwet), which grounds the right to diverse religious manifestations in public domains; for example, the construction of various religious buildings, Hindu mandirs in Den Helder and Almere, Shi’ite processions in The Hague, the free choice to abide by religious sartorial and dietary rules as well as the right to amplify calls to prayer using loudspeakers.

In the book Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape, I describe prejudice against the adhan, but also how the Dutch government facilitates amplification when a mosque’s announcement to call to prayer is met with various types of resistance. The adhan, it was often said, does not fit into the Dutch culture, religious heritage, or into a society that has experienced rapid secularization or, as it is called in the Netherlands, de-churching (ontkerkelijking). On the other hand, citizenship, our political identity irrespective of culture and religion, is in practice realized as material or sensational religion. For the Muslims insisting on amplifying Islam, the sound meant a “completion” of the mosque which established their right to the city, and their place in the country as free and equal citizens.

While the Dutch state regulates religious presence with laws and policies, to enable public practices such as amplifying Islam, it does not resort to reducing the concept of religion to the inner world of believers’ conscience, or to a private matter in the sense that the mosque should not be audible. That is why it is not surprising that Amsterdam’s then acting mayor Jozias van Aartsen recently spoke out in defense of the Western Mosque’s right to be heard, just as other mosques and churches in the Netherlands.

Given that around half of all mosques in the Netherlands are owned by Turkish-Dutch organizations, the wish to sound the call to prayer must in many cases be related to the position of Turkish-Dutch citizens specifically. This group’s widely condemned adherence to Turkish nationalist ideas, symbols, and practices coincides with mosque-goers’ position as citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. For many who share these multiple identities, the adhan can provoke nostalgic emotions of a youth spent in Turkey, feelings of belonging to the Netherlands, and, simultaneously, vain imaginations of former Ottoman glory. During my doctoral research, I was confronted with these (and other) transnational entanglements, when I experienced the Gezi-park protests in Istanbul and witnessed how teargas and worse was used to drive away peaceful protestors. Since then, the tension between secularity and religion in Turkey has exacerbated, affecting perceived meanings of calls to prayer in the Netherlands as well.

This situation compelled me as a researcher to consider difficult political philosophical and practical questions, which cannot be answered by an anthropological approach alone, and to do so in a constructive spirit rather than to be content with existing critiques of political secularism. What does it take for a mosque to sound the call to prayer, what can be reasonably expected of Islamic organizations and of other citizens who may protest Islamic sounds?

Besides well documented European xenophobia towards migrants and their children, or towards refugees especially since 2015, increasingly intolerant Turkish nationalist sentiments challenged me to think beyond understandable desires for interreligious understanding and grand ideals of living together well. In short, I did not interpret the purpose of the equal right of religious freedom and life-philosophies as a means, primarily, either for the promotion of social cohesion or for shaping the nation’s cultural identity. From this perspective, one of strict equal rights applied equally, it is no wonder that no mosque has ever been brought to court for amplifying the adhan. That is because mosques in the Netherlands do so only in relatively modest ways, for instance once a day in the afternoon, with a duration of only several minutes and a volume that rarely reaches higher than 60 dB. Adhan opponents simply would not stand a chance in court.

Besides the positive right to freely practice religious worship in public, others do have a negative right – to an extent determined by contextual interpretation – not to be disturbed by loud and unwanted symbolic sounds. In actual governance, different concerned citizens and organized parties have little choice but to look for and accept a compromise, but, crucially, never in such a way that nothing is left of the adhan for the believers to hear. While the adhan can be regulated by local municipalities, the Constitution guarantees the right to a daily amplification (including several times if the mosque insists on its right to do so, a permit is not required).

To conclude, my study of the adhan in the Netherlands corroborates the idea that religious diversity, also as public manifestation, does not represent strange remnants from a more religious past in what is a predominantly secular society with a Christian background. Religious diversity is the result of freedom and thus the product of a liberal-democratic and constitutional state. As political philosopher John Rawls puts it, whoever mourns the presence of diverse religious associations or individuals, mourns the outcome of freedom itself. Religious diversity is, therefore, now and in the future, an essential characteristic of equal citizens in free societies.

Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape is available as a paperback and (in the very near future) Open Access at