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Get out of the cab

Islam | Some Muslim taxi drivers want government support for their objection to hauling alcohol

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

For the past several years, dozens of airline passengers per month have landed in Minnesota, collected their checked baggage, and stepped unwittingly into a small slice of Shariah (Quran-based) law. Many Muslim taxi cab drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have refused service to travelers carrying alcohol, claiming the Quran forbids transporting this "mother of all evils."

Through August of this year, the number of customers complaining to the airport about such rejections climbed to 77 per month-tourists with fine wines, businessmen with duty-free whiskey, jet-lagged vacationers with miniature bottles from the plane. About 70 percent of the airport cab drivers are Muslim, most of them immigrants from Somalia. "We have people sometimes who are refused by cab after cab after cab," said Patrick Hogan of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "That's created a problem."

With little recourse at their disposal to solve the situation, MAC officials entered discussions with the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society, an organization recommended by the state's Department of Human Rights. MAC officials wondered why this religious conviction against transporting alcohol has not arisen at other airports throughout the country. Does Islamic law truly forbid it?

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MAS answered that question with an unambiguous fatwa, claiming broad agreement among Muslim scholars that transporting alcohol constitutes sin. The fatwa, dated June 6 of this year, instructs airport cabbies to continue refusing fares as necessary to avoid "cooperating in sin."

Satisfied that the prohibition represented a legitimate religious concern, MAC officials agreed to a pilot program that would color code the top lights of taxis unwilling to haul alcohol. Airport employees could then direct customers to appropriate cabs where service would not be refused.

But when word of that plan became public last month, thousands of angry e-mails flowed into MAC computers. People expressed outrage that a government agency would capitulate to the requirements of Shariah law. "The outcry was based most of all on the idea of a slippery slope," MAC official Hogan said last week. "If you make this accommodation with alcohol, what's going to happen next? Is it going to be women traveling alone, or are women going to have to wear burqas?"

On Oct. 10 MAC executive director Jeff Hamiel said the commission had altered course and would not proceed with the pilot program for fear that "its implementation could have unintended and significant negative impacts on the taxi industry as a whole." He said new federal restrictions on taking liquids through security checkpoints had reduced the number of passengers carrying alcohol and nearly eliminated the problem.

For the time being, cabbies who refuse fares lose their place in line and return to the end of the taxi queue in accordance with a MAC ordinance. But Hassan Mohamud, vice president of the Minnesota MAS, remains committed to a resolution that reflects MAS's interpretation of the Quran. He told WORLD that he had "two goals-to provide the customers the best service when they land at the airport and to respect the rights of Muslims to practice their religion."

Hogan said the commission is willing to hear more ideas, but he isn't "sure a solution is out there that really is going to do all those things." He said MAC officials might consider stiffening the penalty for refusing service if complaints continue.

Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at Delaware University who has written extensively on immigrant Muslims in North America, believes the airport should ignore the taxi drivers' concerns as "ridiculous." He said many Muslims in the United State are more concerned with protecting Islam than practicing Islam and that a prohibition against carrying passengers with alcohol amounts to a "silly identity marker to prove they are good Muslims."

Khan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and widely quoted voice of moderate Islam, called the MAS fatwa "narrow and simplistic." He is disappointed that local Muslim clerics did not intervene to prevent what he views as a misguided stunt to take a stand and attract attention.

Others view the fatwa as more sinister, part of a calculated effort to alter the fabric of American life and establish Shariah law. Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, told WORLD that many Muslim religious leaders in the city were shocked to learn of the MAS prohibition: "They have a political agenda, and they want to hijack the faith of Islam," he said of MAS leaders. "They're looking for an issue to get Muslims to rally behind to drive a wedge in the community between Muslims and non-Muslims."

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