For whom the bell tolls: prayer or noise?


The sounds made by people gathered for prayer are considered, by some, a serious public nuisance and a violation of religious freedom.  A heated social media exchange on this issue provoked Sarah-Leah Pimentel to write.

Nothing causes greater ill feeling among neighbours than noise. But here’s the problem: my idea of noise is not necessarily another’s idea of noise. 

The issue of noise becomes even more contentious if it emanates from cultural and religious practices.

At the start of Ramadaan, the Muir Street mosque in Cape Town received a noise complaint, from a resident who said that the adhan (the public daily call to prayer) was “too noisy.” In another incident shortly before Christmas last year, Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba threatened to close down noisy churches that had become public nuisances.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to non-adherents of a particular faith community who might not like to be woken on a Sunday morning by the ringing of church bells or early morning summons to prayer. But, I can also imagine how frustrating it must be constantly stuck between churches competing for sound.

But all this aside, the freedom of religion and religious practice is a right enshrined in the South African constitution (§15.1). This means that every believer should be free to practise his or her religion with all it entails. As a Christian, I don’t want to hear the church bells or the choir silenced — unless perhaps it’s out of tune.

However, if some of the Facebook comments around the Muir Street incident are anything to go by, for all the talk of freedom of religion and tolerance for other religions, non-believers expressed that their right not to be harassed by the religious beliefs of others was not being respected. For the unbelieving, and even for those of other religions, the bells, voices over a megaphone, and music bands are both an unwelcome noise and a deliberate attempt by religious groups to impose their beliefs on others. That, they said, places limits on their tolerance.

Reading both sides of this emotional argument, I thought that surely there must be some legal parameters that can assist aggrieved groups to reach an agreeable resolution.

I turned to the bylaws for the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Cape Town. All offer a definition of noise. There is “disturbing noise” and “noise nuisance.” Disturbing noise is an objective measure that exceeds 70 decibels (equates to a room full of people talking or an alarm clock). A noise nuisance is subjective and refers to a noise that may “disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person.”

Reading this definition, it seems to me that elements of public worship probably mostly fall under the “noise nuisance” category. Its subjective nature make it difficult to legislate. We can see this from the fact that neither Johannesburg nor Cape Town bylaws refer specifically to religious noise.

Cape Town rules that no person shall permit a noise from a private residence that is audible in a public place, “except for the purposes of loudspeaker announcements for public meetings.” Johannesburg has rules about the level of noise permitted at an act of public worship, but only if that act takes place in facilities leased from the city. It says nothing about buildings that belong to a religious group.

Tshwane has a noise management policy, a 59-page document that talks about the health effects of noise, and lists a variety of environments, including places of worship, that produce different kinds of noise. But it does not provide a measure of what is acceptable levels of noise for each of these environments.

Not very helpful in trying to find a legal answer in the noise battles between residents and places of worship. That said, I’m not really in favour of legislation to regulate religious activities on the basis of the separation of church and state. 

The only other option would be dialogue and open conversation. Places of worship operate within a community. In former times, communities lived around their places of worship. That is not the case anymore. Today we find that diverse communities share living and worship spaces. This begs for tolerance and understanding, from both sides. It also requires both to come up with solutions that allow everyone to live side-by-side in peace. 

Granted, this is difficult. But necessary. We are constantly reminded that South Africa is very privileged, as a nation that celebrates its religious and cultural diversity, where each one is free to practise the religion of their choice, or not to practice at all. 

In a world where avowed Muslim suicide bombers attack Christian churches on Easter Sunday and during religious processions or where supposedly Christian gunmen open fire on Muslims at prayer, our freedom of religion is not something to be taken for granted. 

As Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya said here, we need to be deliberate in our efforts to promote inter-faith relations. To go even further, we need to foster relations with those who do not practise any organised religion. Then, we can find true mutual respect and tolerance.

Because if we don’t, its antithesis is too unbearable to contemplate. Intolerance very quickly escalates into contempt, hatred, and violence. 

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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