After public outcry, Somali in western Wisconsin withdraw request to broadcast call to prayer

BARRON, Wis. — After public outcry, the Somali community in the small western Wisconsin city of Barron has withdrawn a request to city council to publicly broadcast their call to prayer from the area’s two mosques.

Last Tuesday, more than a dozen spoke out against the agenda item at the city council meeting, the Wisconsin Public Radio reported. The rhetoric was the type that longtime community member and recently-elected city council member Isaak Mohamed hasn’t seen during his time in Barron.

“I was disappointed to hear, from the locals, saying ‘Go back to Somalia,'” he said in an interview. “This is my home. I have five children; four of them were born in Barron. They don’t know where else to go.”

The Somali community in Barron, which numbers almost 500 in a town of about 3,500 according to the latest census, had asked Mohamed to put the item before the council to request permission. While the Islamic call to prayer goes out five times a day, it would only have been heard between one and three times during daylight hours, Mohamed said.

Mohamed said he is Wisconsin’s first elected Somali Muslim official, winning the seat this spring on his third attempt to run for the role. He has lived in the U.S. since 2006, and in Barron since 2013. Much like other Somali in Barron, he fled a wartorn nation.

“We are a peace-loving community,” he said. “There’s a reason why we came here: the great nation is open to everyone.”

The request to publicly broadcast the call to prayer may be the first of its kind in Wisconsin, Madison’s Islamic Center president Ibrahim Saeed says. It’s never been an issue in the Madison or Milwaukee communities because they rely on digital technology to relay the changing times for prayer, which rely on the solar calendar and therefore can change throughout the year.

“With the technology we have, you can have it on your phone, connect to internet, connect to folks in other groups,” Saeed explained. “We’ve been here almost 42 years; we’ve never even thought of [broadcasting] it.”

A publicly broadcast call to prayer is common in Muslim-majority countries, and is also used in much larger Muslim communities such as Dearborn, Michigan and, more recently, in Minneapolis which recently granted its Muslim communities permission.

For Barron’s Somali, the disturbance that resulted prompted them to withdraw the request.

“We do not wish to be the target of trouble here in Barron,” Mohamed explained. The communities have previously gotten along well together, he said; they’d intermarried and lived alongside each other as neighbors. While he wasn’t accustomed to the negative voices of dissent at the council meeting, he said the Somali he represented preferred to restore the previous peace.

“Having harmony in a community is more important,” Saeed said. “There is more gain than broadcasting the call outside.”

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.