The voters of Hamtramck will go to the polls on July 20 to decide whether to overturn a recently enacted ordinance allowing the city's mosques to broadcast their call to prayer over loudspeakers.
The dispute appears to raise a number of fundamental issues - among them whether Americans believe they can come to terms with Islam in the wider world or whether a "clash of civilizations," in Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington's famous term, is inevitable. There also are many who believe Islam is incompatible with the democratic traditions of what the U.S. Supreme Court in 1892 called a "Christian nation." Coming on the heels of the September 11 attacks, Muslim calls to prayer in Hamtramck strike some residents as calls to religious battle.
On the facts, though, the Hamtramck situation would seem eminently manageable. The town's existing noise ordinance, which is still in effect until the referendum takes place, flatly bans any form of public amplification without a permit. But at least one church in Hamtramck has long used a recording in place of church bells, and even the City Council's new ordinance permits regulation of the noise level and duration of the calls to prayer.
But the City Council's action nevertheless triggered an immediate backlash. City Council meetings devolved into shouting matches; Christian activists from other states showed up to march in protest. A petition drive quickly succeeded in rounding of enough signatures to force a referendum.
"When you call to prayer, you are proselytizing, and as a citizen of the United States I don't want to hear it," 68-year-old resident Bob Golen was quoting as saying.
But nothing in either the U.S. Constitution or American tradition prohibits proselytizing. Indeed, the free exercise of religion includes the freedom to try to persuade others through lawful means to join your particular brand of religion. As many observers have noted, such competition tends to strengthen a religion, not weaken it. Nor is there any threat of Arab jihadists overrunning the United States...