Despite the frequency of bell sound, many people in Puy, when asked, claimed not to hear bell chimes in their town.Footnote 25 The question was fielded with some surprise, which often led to musing and then statements such as “well, yes, I suppose the Cathedral does ring the hours….” A few residents went so far as to vehemently deny the presence of any religious ringing—citing personal knowledge and embodied experience (“I have never heard it”) as evidence for their stance. While there was a general awareness of the bells, non-Muslim Ponots I spoke with were unable to tell me of their individual signification when asked. This excludes Father Bernard Planche, in charge of ringing at the cathedral. Planche suggested that while most residents of Puy (or Ponots) today were unlikely to know precisely what each ring tone signified, they might plausibly figure it out from context. As Planche noted with some regret, “there are no special ways of training citizens’ ears anymore—it’s simply a matter of accustomization.” In his opinion, contextualizing the bells was made easier by the fact that the tempo of the ringing often correlated with its subject—weddings were celebrated in a joyous, upbeat style that set the bells swinging; funerals, in contrast, were rung with single, echoing, taps.Footnote 26
The Ponots’ deafness to church bells may be understood as a double silence: first, bells are audible but unheard because of a subjective and culturally conditioned capacity to tune out some types of sound; and second, the ability to distinguish among bell chimes, or to understand the denotative content of the sound, has been lost, silencing its signification. In everyday experience, then, bell ringing is “dissolved” into background noise that forms the neutral baseline from which residents pay heed to their ambient surround, leading to an expansive conception of “silence” and tranquilité that enfolds, among other things, bell sounds. Church bells that resound across public space without the benefit of inherited or normed meanings speak to a tangible, empirical transformation of culture—representing an affective echo of earlier practices that lacks precise societal mooring in the contemporary era. As such, common sense represents a mechanism by which church bells come to be constructed as cultural rather than exclusively religious in legal contexts, even as analysis of the sensory perceptions underlying mainstream notions of common sense reveals the blurring of religious and cultural categories in society more broadly.Footnote 27
In support of the notion that bells are either not perceived or ignored as “normal” ambiance, lawsuits challenging bell ringing are infrequent in France. A March 2018 search on www.bruit.fr, a French organization dedicated to tracking noise complaints and the regulation of environmental noise, revealed six court cases that dealt with church bell ringing, spanning the period from 1974 to 2005.Footnote 28 When lawsuits do occur, courts fall back on broader noise regulation laws to adjudicate disagreement, but often rule in the Church’s favor nevertheless. In the northern French city of Douai for example, a city celebrated for its 80-meter Gothic belfry dating to 1380, and its 62-bell carillon that spans five octaves, residents living near the cathedral filed a noise complaint, claiming the bells were disruptive. The court authorized sound specialists to take noise measurements at the plaintiffs’ property and found that the bell clangor at the location of the complaint registered under the city’s decibel limit for disruptive noise.Footnote 29 Thus, the administrative court ruled in favor of the mayor (who in this case had sided with the Church and refused to moderate the bell ringing). If the bell sound had exceeded the city’s guidelines for noise, the judge could have asked the church to attenuate the ringing, but he would not have the authority to eliminate it entirely.
The primary mosque of Le Puy-en-Velay tried for a brief period to broadcast the adhan beyond its walls. The Muslim Association of Puy never asked the city for official permission to broadcast the adhan, but they did mount a small loudspeaker on the chimney of the old farmhouse, now refashioned as a discrete minaret and topped with an unobtrusive crescent moon. President Mohamed Boussikli said the mosque broadcast the adhan from the loudspeaker, particularly around Muslim holidays, but never received complaints from neighbors. At approximately 10 percent of the population of Puy, Muslims are a minority, but in terms of the spatial distribution of domiciles, there are “clusters” where Muslims constitute a majority of inhabitants.Footnote 30 The loudspeaker is mounted on the side of the building facing the parking lot, and Boussikli indicated that mosque-goers found it useful, particularly as they were approaching, because it gave them a sense of how much time they had before the prayer began. He added that hearing it gave the congregation a sense of joy and pride during the holidays.Footnote 31
Located to the southeast on a ridge that encircles the town basin,Footnote 32 the Mosquée al Rahman was built on farmland in 1990. It is separated from central Puy by train tracks, but there is a small, mixed, lower-income residential community, officially designated a zone urbain sensible, of ZUS, along the flank of the ridge leading up to the mosque. The mosque abuts a commodious parking lot which stands empty most of the time, but fills up on annual celebrations such as Eid al Kebir, when attendance swells to between 400-700 people. On a typical day, between 10 and 20 Muslims come to pray.Footnote 33 The mosque’s closest neighbor is a large, covered sports facility with community basketball courts and a swimming pool; a little further down the road, an equestrian center is surrounded by pastureland. The mosque is open to all, but it was founded and continues to be run by Muslims of Moroccan ancestry with ties to the city of Meknes. The congregation follows the Maliki school of Islamic law.
The broadcast of the adhan may not have upset any neighbors willing to engage mosque officials directly, but it came to the attention of a number of French bloggers and right-wing media outlets who sent a representative to interview Boussikli and then, in rhetorical outrage over the presence of an adhan in French territory, reblogged video footage of his “admission” widely. The interview shows Boussikli in the front of the mosque, with the loudspeaker visible in the background. He is filmed saying the mosque never had any complaints about the sound. The following excerpt by Catherine Segurane, writing for AgoraVox, Le Media Citoyen, is representative of the reporting that followed.Footnote 34 Segurane writes:
In theory, the minarets built in France are not intended for the call to prayer. In practice, several examples have been discovered. They were clandestine at first, but they have even dropped this pretense. […] What did we hear when we dared [suggest that minarets would lead to prayer calls?] “No, no, no, never would a Muslim think of performing the adhan in Europe. To suspect them was pure Islamophobia. The minaret was a simple architectural element. Promised, sworn, sealed. In reality, promises are only binding on those who believe in them, and examples of the call to prayer, either already being performed, or soon to follow, are multiplying.Footnote 35
Segurane charges mosques in Nanterre and Montluçon likewise of sounding the adhan. Other bloggers piled on, accusing mosques in Meaux, Bethoncourt, and Marseille of the same offense.Footnote 36 The anti-Islamic and xenophobic Riposte Laïque and l’Observatoire de l’Islamization posted what appeared to be a video of Laurent Wauquiez, at the time the mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay, speaking in favor of the mosques’ call to prayer.Footnote 37 The video, which contains awkward cuts that suggest amateur editing, was likely cobbled together to suit a political end. Liotard denied the report that Wauquiez, his former boss, would have authorized the Mosque to call the adhan, saying flatly that it did not happen. A life-long resident, Liotard had never heard the adhan in Puy, but added that the mosque was sufficiently far away that a prayer call was unlikely to be audible. Liotard suggested that the Riposte Laïque article was best understood as a political attack against Wauquiez, capitalizing on the “lightening rod” reaction the adhan issue was certain to evoke among its readers. The statement highlights the political salience that such seemingly small-scale, visceral civic encounters wield: journalists and politicians alike seize upon embodied markers of difference because they trigger powerful reactions—reactions that often span the Left–Right divide as they do not demand intellectual engagement or deliberation, but rather rely on common, presumedly pre-cognitive gut-feelings.Footnote 38
In 2013, the Puy mosque was the target of two hate crimes. In one incident, mosque-goers found a garbage bag containing a severed pig’s head wrapped in a French flag on mosque property. The mosque’s CCTV surveillance footage revealed that it had been deposited in a drive-by; the sedan was not local but had a license plate from nearby Lyon. In the wake of the act, mosque officials retrenched. They left the loudspeaker installed but used it only on religious holidays and at a very low volume, generally reverting to calling the adhan inside mosque walls and leaving its public broadcast aside.
Although the political right has been the most outspoken against the sound, the adhan has long met with widespread disapproval in the French public: a 1989 IFOP survey of French opinion found that more than one-third of French people are opposed to the construction of mosques because of their prominent visibility (the height of the minaret) and the supposed noise disturbance of the call to prayer.Footnote 39 A follow-up survey five years later found that, while negative attitudes toward minaret heights had fallen in favor of people who characterized themselves as “indifferent,” opposition to the prayer call remained as solid as before.Footnote 40 Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, capitalizing on this sentiment in 2010, and speaking on the topic of immigration, said “that there should be places of worship for Muslims is quite normal, there are more than 2000. But in France, there is no minaret, there is no muezzin that makes the call to prayer,” adding that he hears his compatriots when they say, “we want to stay in France, the France that we love.”Footnote 41
The reasons behind the disapproval are complex, but one element that contributes to its negative reception is the way in which the sound, and particularly the takbir, or the first line of the call to prayer, has been associated discursively with terrorism in popular media.Footnote 42 Instances of such reporting range from news reports of the Charlie Hebdo shooters’ shouting “Allahu Akbar” as they entered the building, to Muslim protesters chanting in streets,Footnote 43 and to the cooptation of the takbir by three non-Muslim French minors in Bezier who prank-called “Allahu Akbar” over the public announcement system on a train in southeastern France before threatening to kill the train’s occupants in a fake terrorist attack.Footnote 44 French media treatment of the adhan largely falls into two categories—either it is referenced in a descriptive sense, often in the context of evoking “exotic” Oriental alterity, or it is cited in association with terror attacks and violence.Footnote 45
Although public opinion and intimidation have played a role in silencing the adhan, there are without doubt more prosaic explanations for the absence of the Muslim prayer call in France as well. As voluntary associations, many mosques struggle financially, drawing most of their operating budget from the donations of their members.Footnote 46 As such, they have limited funds for full-time employees; a dedicated muezzin is often not a financial possibility. Often the imam doubles as the muezzin and calls the adhan, or, as in the case of the Mosquée al Rahman in Puy with its small daily congregation, any male member of the jammah may perform the duty. The mosque’s constituents rotate informally so that no one person is permanently responsible. In a context where communities have faced long uphill battles to find physical space for worship, the question of the adhan has often simply had to wait.