Thomas Sutcliffe: Perhaps we should silence the bells, too?

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Writing of the defeat of the Saracens by Charles Martel in AD 732, Edward Gibbon knowingly scraped a fingernail down the blackboard of his reader's sensibilities. Had the Saracens been able to advance onwards into Europe and Great Britain, Gibbon wrote, "perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet". Gibbon was not a believer, so I have a feeling his counter-factual had a mischievous edge to it. He knew the idea of an "Oxford mosch" would grate on his almost exclusively Christian readership, and he rather enjoyed the fact.

It isn't a counter-factual anymore, of course. The elders of Oxford's Central Mosque have recently applied for permission to broadcast a call to prayer – the Adhan – through loudspeakers in the minaret and in doing so they have stirred up furious opposition from local residents and a spasm of cultural anxiety further afield.

Not everyone got quite as feverishly over-excited as Dr Allen Chapman, who was quoted as saying "It seems to me this is a move to torment and torture non-Muslims", but the feeling that it would be taking multi-cultural tolerance a step too far appeared to be pretty widespread. The Saracens, to put it crudely, had to be stopped.

I confess I felt the grating sense of wrongness myself when I first heard of the proposal, and I couldn't immediately work out why. I also felt I needed to resolve it pretty urgently. It is not a pleasant thing to find that your knee has reflexively jerked in synchrony with that of Peter Hitchens.

What's more, on reflection, this seemed like a very good practical exercise in tolerance. One might not like the idea, out of cultural nostalgia, but then tolerance would hardly be a virtue at all if we were expected to tolerate only things that we weren't that bothered about. Tolerance means putting up with things you don't like – so perhaps we should listen to the Bishop of Oxford, and relax the sound of multiculturalism. This isn't a case, as it was implicitly characterised by several opponents, of "them" imposing something on "us", because ideally "us" includes "them" – and getting used to the odd change in the texture of daily life should be a small price to pay for that ideal.

There are some problems, though. One is that tolerance should always be reciprocated and it isn't obvious that the elders of the mosque are showing a great deal for the feelings of their close neighbours. I take it they aren't languishing in a state of theological depravity while the call for prayer isn't being broadcast, so it can't be represented as an urgent necessity of conscience. It's just something they'd like to do and they seem prepared to put their liking ahead of the intense disliking of the people they live with.

The other problem is that of precedent; if Muslims are to be allowed to broadcast pious assertions through loudspeakers, why not any other religious group? Or non-religious groups, for that matter. Were I living in Oxford, I might contemplate retaliating with the thrice-daily broadcast of the phrase "God is Dead and Darwin Pulled the Trigger", perhaps timed to counter what I regard as the manifest untruth of the Adhan.

The result would be the replacement of tranquil civil space with a clamour of competing assertions. Better that Christian bells should fall silent, if absolute parity is what we want, than that muezzins should start up.

Serene, clean – and noisy

One has to be careful here – since an alcohol problem is no cause for congratulation. But I have to confess I felt a pulse of delight when I read that Sean Young, left, had heckled Julian Schnabel during a Directors Guild Awards ceremony.

He took so long summoning the words for his nominee's speech, with such ponderously self-regarding pauses, that she yelled "Get on with it" – at which point Schnabel looked as if he was on the point of leaping from the stage to have it out with her directly.

Young checked into rehab shortly afterwards. One hopes she emerges clean and serene, but not quieter. Alternatively, can't we find a safer way to disinhibit audiences at future festivals of the ego?

* Hillary Clinton was troubled enough by the poetry gap to cite Mario Cuomo's celebrated maxim about having eventually to govern in prose. Well, the governing – or not – comes later. What is far more pertinent today is whether the electorate decides to vote in poetry or in prose – and if it's the former, Obama has surely got a boost from a music video made by the Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am and the director, Jesse Dylan.

It consists of an Obama speech set to music and performed – in a kind of technological sing-along with the candidate himself – by a roster of the creators' celebrity friends. And if I was Clinton's campaign manager I would hate and fear it – because it works, bypassing the brain to move voters' hearts.

Watching, it strikes you that there's a real chance some voters will go into the polling booth humming a candidate's lyrics, which must be a first of some kind.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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