Calls to exempt religious activity from the City of Cape Town’s noise and nuisance by-laws are mounting after a complaint was lodged over the sounding of the athaan at Nural Huda masjid in Leeuwen Street last week. The mosque said this was the second time a complaint was reported and it was aware of a third complaint against another mosque in the area – all in the space of two months. The mosque is still closed despite the easing of lockdown restrictions and the athaan has persistently been rendered.
The athaan has become a sore point for Muslims in the wake of a recent Durban High Court judgement which effectively silenced the athaan in Isipingo Beach. On Friday, the court ordered that the Madrasah Taleemuddeen Islamic Institute stop the sounding of the call to prayer, after resident Chandra Ellaurie, launched a legal application. In court papers, Ellaurie cited the athaan as a disturbance and said it deprived him of the enjoyment of his property. The Institute in Isipingo Beach has decided to appeal the judgement, which has widely condemned by the Muslim community.
This matter, and the Bo Kaap complaint, has brought into sharp focus the issues of tolerance, religious diversity and inclusivity.
Speaking to VOC last night, the masjid’s imam Shaykh Dawood Terblanche said they were shocked when law enforcement officials visited the mosque on Friday to inform them of the complaint. Information on the complainant is unknown to the mosque committee as no formal papers were served.
“In the space of two months…this is unprecedented for the Bo Kaap area. The City of Cape Town is acting on a by-law that requires some serious amendments. We need to overcome this problem once and for all,” he said.
A complaint lodged with the City of Cape Town about the athaan at the Zeenatul Islam masjid in District Six sparked a huge public uproar last year, with the City publicly announcing it would amend its noise by-law to exempt religious activity. Terblanche said it was quite strange that the City had given this commitment back then, but yet it was entertaining this complaint.
“There have been consultations with the City of Cape Town that this is where it ends…but we are not content with that as we don’t know what will happen if there’s another complaint,” said Terblanche.
“We’ve had non-Muslims who have been living in Bo Kaap for some time and they say they don’t have an issue with the athaan. We don’t know if its Islamophobic or just intolerance. But social activism is going to be important. I believe we should not just sit back if nothing else happens…we need to go beyond their assurances and agitate for amending this by-law.”
City of Cape Town head of safety and security Richard Bosman said the complaint was lodged with their call centre and the complainant had “found the noise disturbing”. This prompted officials to visit the mosque on Friday to speak to the imam. There were no fines issued but the staff reported the matter to the environmental health department.
“This is a very technical matter. If we can come to an amicable solution, that’s what we intend to do,” said Bosman.
Bosman said enforcing the city’s bylaws was a balancing act between the rights to practice religion and the rights of residents.
“If it is proved that the decibel reading is higher than what is permissible in that area, environmental health staff will contact both parties to find an amicable solution. Sometimes the volume needs to be turned down slightly or the speaker needs to be turned in a different direction. The City’s view is that the rights of both parties must be respected.”
The City of Cape Town is considering the proposed amendments to its Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Noise Nuisances By-law, which was open to public comment in May. The by-law relates to the management of streets and public places, noise nuisances and other incidental matters on all properties within Cape Town.
Bosman said in terms of the current definition, noise control regulations determined different levels of noise, which is regarded as acceptable, for different areas.
“There was a substantial amount of comments and we have not approved the amendments. This issue will be fed into the process,” he added.
Tolerance and religious inclusivity
However, Sandy Schuter from the Strandfontein Community Police Forum (CPF) has questioned why the City would investigate one single complaint. In December 2018, Masjidus Saligeen in Bayview, Strandfontein had also been subject to an investigation by the City, following several complaints by one individual over the athaan.
Following meetings with the City and the MJC, it was agreed that the athaan would not be silenced. The entire saga upset Muslims and Christian residents, with thousands signing a petition to apply pressure on the city council.
“We need to exempt religious calls to prayer so we can have the freedom to express our religion as we want to. I think it’s time that we as the Christian community stand up for one another because tomorrow it could be our religion that is next attacked,” said Schuter.
“When a Muslim is born, the athaan is recited in the baby’s ear. This is something we grew up with. The athaan is part of the fabric of our society, whether you are Muslim or not,” she added.
Osman Shabodien, the chairperson of the Bo Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association, said it needed to be determined if the complaint was due to intolerance or ignorance.
“In our investigation, we came across a number of issues that we as a community need to address. Amongst them is that people moving into the area hear the athaan and claim ignorance that they didn’t know. People are using this to settle personal scores as we see with the Isipingo case,” said Shabodien.
A living heritage
The call to prayer in Bo Kaap spans more than 200 years with the establishment of the first mosque in South Africa, the Auwal masjid in Dorp Street. With the continuing challenge of gentrification, the Bo Kaap community has mobilized in recent years to protect its heritage and hinder several developments in the area. After a sustained campaign to have the government recognize the historic community’s heritage, in 2019, nineteen sites in Bo Kaap, including mosques, were declared national heritage sites.
Bo Kaap heritage activist Muhammad Groenewald argued that the athaan must be part of the city’s “living heritage”.
“The foundation of the athaan is based on a revolution,” he said.
With the advent of democracy, the social landscape of many communities has changed and this is posing a challenge to existing social and cultural identities. He believes it’s up to the Muslim community to educate themselves and others about their Constitutional rights.
“Many non-Muslims are familiar with the athaan. Those coming to South Africa and settling in other areas are the ones complaining and bringing Islamophobic mentality. These by-laws adds to the challenge of our cultural practices.”
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