OXFORD: Muslim call to prayer sounds strained note

OXFORD, England (AFP) - Famous for its university and quintessentially English "dreaming spires," the city of Oxford has been plunged into controversy over the sound of Muslim call to prayer from a local mosque.

Those church spires have been joined by a minaret, with a loudspeaker on top which has triggered protests from locals concerned about the influx of a foreign culture.

"I don't have any problem with Islam but don't force it on people," said Oxford University historian Allan Chapman, whose typically English house has a view of both the minaret and the nearby Church of Saint Mary and Saint John.

The Central Mosque was built in the east of the city, the "other Oxford", which is home to a poorer population and more immigrants than the historic centre of ancient, sandstone colleges, libraries and students on bicycles.

Cutting through the area is the main, multi-ethnic thoroughfare of Cowley Road, where Pakistani men in traditional tunics and other immigrants rub shoulders with the city's student intelligentsia going to and from their digs.

In this city, with a population of just 140,000, including nearly 20,000 students, nothing is very far away.

The mosque itself -- which can hold up to 700 of the town's 6,000 Muslims -- is little more than a 15-minute walk from Oxford's colleges, many of which were founded by Christian religious scholars as long ago as the 12th century.

But while the city's history is marked by Christianity's influence, some believe the mosque's imposing minaret defiles the city's famous skyline, which has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Those feelings have been brought to a head since last November when mosque authorities expressed a desire to broadcast via loudspeaker the Muslim prayer call, the Adhan, sparking controversy that has not yet died down.

Wearing a three-piece suit with a bow tie and a gold chain hanging out of his jacket pocket, Chapman describes himself as "profoundly English" but rejects suggestions that he is taking an extreme view.

"I'm a liberal... I want to be inclusive but I don't want to be walked over," he said.

For him, the issue goes above and beyond the noise created by the call to prayer, which goes out five times daily in Muslim countries, and instead challenges English tolerance and threatens Britain's values and history.

"If Oxford accepts it, it would be used right across the country," he said.

Charlie Cleverly, the rector of the Saint Aldates church, in the heart of Oxford, says the city has long represented "the essence of Englishness".

"It is common knowledge, though few will say it, that 'radical Islam' has a programme to 'take Europe, take England and take Oxford'," he said.

"In this strategy, some say the prayer call is like a bridgehead, spreading to other mosques in the city."

The local Oxford Mail newspaper quoted locals in the area as fearing the creation of a "Muslim ghetto". The counter argument runs that the pealing of church bells is also a call to prayer.

To calm the mood, Central Mosque's treasurer Masood Ahmed insisted that the desire to issue a call to prayer was still only a proposal which required the approval of Oxford's mayor.

"We'll get their views, what they feel," he said.

The Church of England Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard, has entered the row, but supports plans to broadcast the Adhan, calling for people to "relax" and "enjoy community diversity".

"I believe we have good relationships with the Muslim community here in Oxford and I am personally very happy for the mosque to call the faithful to prayer in east Oxford," he said in January.

But he accepted that the number of times the call went out and its volume still needed to be resolved.

Chapman, though, is less accommodating, pledging to seek compensation from the mayor for "discrimination" if the proposal is approved.

For the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the debate is as futile as its direction is inevitable, as a debate rages over the extent to which cultural diversity is affecting the traditionally British way of life.

"The call to prayer will be part of Britain and Europe in the future," said Inayat Bunglawala, the MCB's assistant secretary general.

He said that the Adhan was already broadcast three times a day at a large mosque in east London and that it had "never been problematic".

END

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