A mosque in Stockholm has received initial approval to begin sounding public prayer calls from its minaret, the first time such permission has ever been granted in Sweden.
A majority of the members of the city planning committee in the southern Stockholm suburb of Botkyrka voted on September 25 to repeal a 1994 prohibition on such prayer calls, thereby opening the way for a muezzin to begin calling Muslims to prayer from the top of a 32-meter (104-foot) minaret at a Turkish mosque in the Fittja district of the city.
The issue was put to a vote after Ismail Okur, the chairman of the Botkyrka Islamic Association (Islamiska föreningen i Botkyrka), filed a petition with the city in January demanding permission to allow public prayer calls at the mosque.
In an interview with the Swedish newspaper Dagen, Okur said earlier generations of Muslim immigrants "did not dare" to press the issue, but that he represents the "new guys" who are determined to "exercise their right to religious freedom" in Sweden.
Okur said: "We have lived our whole lives in Sweden. We have paid taxes. We have been exemplary citizens. We have given a lot to Sweden. Now we want to get a little back. Now we want to have religious freedom."
The planning commission's decision to repeal the ban will now be considered by the executive board of the city council on October 25. If the board approves, the mosque will be allowed to start sounding the call to prayer effective immediately. The decision is especially significant because it will set a precedent for all of the 200 other mosques in Sweden.
In an interview with Swedish Public Radio, Okur said his initial objective first and foremost was to obtain permission to make prayer calls every Friday in connection with Friday prayers "to begin with." He said: "It feels great that we have been through this, that we get a call to prayer for our big day on Fridays."
According to Dagen, Okur does not rule out eventually having a muezzin making prayer calls seven days a week. "We have to start somewhere," he said. "It would have been too much to begin with. If the proposal goes through, it is about once a week, maybe 1-2 minutes. It is actually not much."
If the city does not grant permission for the mosque to make public calls to prayer every Friday, Okur says he will seek permission for having a muezzin on the first Friday of each month. If that does not work, he will seek to get permits for two public prayer calls per year.
The Socialist Mayor of Botkyrka, Katarina Berggren, said the main issue is whether the noise level of the muezzin would violate the security provisions of the city's Environmental Code. She added that the city's Environment and Health Committee do not see the noise as a problem, and that therefore the ban would not stand up to a legal challenge. As a result, she said, the municipality cannot prevent the muezzin from calling the faithful to prayer.
The Christian Democrats were the only party to vote against allowing the mosque to make prayer calls. Stefan Dayne, a Christian Democrat member of the Botkyrka city planning committee who voted against lifting the ban, told Dagen that the other parties "were afraid" to uphold the ban for fear of "losing votes from Muslims here in Botkyrka."
Dayne also said: "We have nothing against religious freedom. We are for freedom of expression. And we have nothing against Muslims. But we do not think local government has the competence to rule on the muezzin. It is a message that is being proclaimed which may offend other groups and therefore we see it as a police matter."
According to Dayne, the Botkyrka police regulations include a clause which states that "propaganda targeted at people in public places cannot be done through loudspeakers or the like without the permission of the police." Instead of muezzin, he believes that there are alternative ways to remind Muslims to attend Friday prayers.
When asked about the difference between a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer and Christian church bells that ring, Dayne responded: "It is not just a sound, without a message being proclaimed."
Not surprisingly, Okur disagrees: "It's great! The prayer call is for us like ringing bells are for churches. It's important."
When told that Sweden is historically a Christian country, Okur responded: "So it was perhaps before, during the 1930s and 1940s. Now it is a new era. We are more than 100,000 [sic] Muslims in Sweden. Should we not have our religion as well, especially here in Botkyrka, where we are so many?" (Although there are no official statistics of Muslims in Sweden, the U.S. State Department reported in 2011 that there are in the country between 450,000 and 500,000 Muslims, making up around 5% of the total population.)