JAKARTA: Indonesia’s new guidelines to address complaints about mosque loudspeakers’ volumes are sparking controversy in the Muslim-majority nation.
A circular issued on Feb 18 by the religious affairs ministry introduced several new guidelines on loudspeakers, including maximum volume, for the more than 600,000 registered mosques in the sprawling archipelago.
Mosques use loudspeakers for calls to prayer and other matters.
Over the years many people have complained about sound level and quality, especially given that some prayers take place at dawn.
Despite multiple attempts to address the issue since an initial guideline was put out more than 30 years ago, a sizable portion of mosques have failed to follow the rules.
“The use of loudspeakers in mosques and prayer rooms is currently a necessity for Muslims as one of the media to spread Islam in the community. At the same time, we live in a diverse society, in terms of religion, belief, background, and others, so efforts are needed to maintain fraternity and social harmony,” said the circular, signed off by the religious affairs minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas.
While over 80% of Indonesians follow Islam, the country also recognises Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as official religions.
The circular, which amends guidelines dating to 1978, introduced for the first time a volume limit for loudspeakers, setting it at 100 decibels, and required sound quality to be “good or not discordant”.
It also shortened the time allowed for Quranic recitals before the dawn call to prayer to 10 minutes, from the previous 15 minutes.
The guidelines also stated that sermons and other announcements may only use interior speakers and not external speakers.
Mosque volumes have long been a contentious issue in Indonesia.
In 2012, then-vice-president Boediono, who goes by one name, faced a backlash after suggesting that mosques lower volumes for calls to prayer.
In 2018, a woman in North Sumatra was sentenced to prison for blasphemy after complaining about the volume of mosque loudspeakers.
And last year, people living in Tangerang on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta, swarmed a housing complex over a resident’s alleged protest against mosque noise.
It is an issue that has caused a stir in other countries as well, even Muslim ones.
In neighbouring Malaysia, which leaves deciding rules on mosque loudspeakers to individual states, several states have restricted their use only for the call to prayer.
And in Saudi Arabia, a circular was issued last year that said speaker volumes should be set at no more than one-third of their maximum volume, and that they should not broadcast full sermons.
After Indonesia’s circular was made public, a lawmaker from the Islamist opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) also expressed concern over the new guidelines.
“In my opinion, the religious affairs ministry does not need to regulate very technical matters regarding worship issues, especially the use of speakers for the call to prayer, recitation, or others in the community, because this is not the same in every village,” he said, as reported by local media.
Indonesia’s internet community seemed to be divided on the new guidelines.
“It’s ok to regulate using outside speaker for call to prayer. To be honest, it is disturbing, as my house is next to a traditional mosque and every evening the noise is unbearable. Especially when (people) are reciting Quran, it feels like an earthquake in the neighbourhood,” one Twitter user quipped.
Another Twitter user, however, said it feels like Islam seems to be the only religion being targeted, and “it’s getting close to feel like living in France”, which controversially has banned the wearing of Islamic veils in public spaces.
Another said: “Since I was born, call to prayer using external speaker is everywhere, no one bothered. Why is there someone who dares to regulate the call to prayer?”