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?
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."
Jamal, who like most of the cab drivers is a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, says MAS is an organization of Middle Eastern Muslims attempting to fold Minnesota's large population of Somali Muslims into its divisive political campaign. "If this is a serious Islamic law issue, how come it doesn't exist at every airport in this country?" he asks. "They've been driving the taxis for the last 20 years. How come it became an issue now all of a sudden? Were all the Muslims born again?"
MAS leader Mohamud, who is Somali, contends that just such a revival occurred, that nominal Muslims began practicing their faith. He says that as more Muslims do the same, similar issues will continue to spring up throughout the country. Asked if he believes local governments should enforce Shariah law in communities dominated by Muslim immigrants, Mohamud replied, "I believe in American democracy, which is majority rules."
The website for the Minnesota chapter of MAS underscores "the call of Islam to Muslim masses all over the world to reestablish Islam as a total way of life." An investigative report by the Chicago Tribune in September 2004 documented links between MAS and the Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme underground movement. The Tribune contended that MAS developed as the public face of a mission to establish Islamic law in the United States by democratic means.
Mohamud stated last week that no connection exists between MAS and the Muslim Brotherhood, but he defended the Brotherhood as not one of the terrorist organizations under official watch by the U.S. State Department. He also argued that seeking government sponsorship for an Islamic prohibition on transporting alcohol fits in with U.S. history: "The American government banned the consumption of alcohol and wine in the 1920s. At that time, the American system had government to enforce that."
If MAS wins this battle, other developments are likely. In England and Australia, Muslim taxi drivers have refused to transport blind passengers with seeing-eye dogs, arguing that dogs are unclean. The British have also been debating whether Muslim women can wear veils that obscure their faces in ID photographs for passports or licenses.
Many "slippery slope" questions affecting not only Islam remain. A decision by Minneapolis Metro Transit authorities last month accommodated a driver's wish not to operate buses with a gay-themed advertisement. The bus driver objected on religious grounds to a billboard with a photo of a young man and the slogan "Unleash Your Inner Gay." Transit authorities agreed to assign the driver only to buses that do not feature the ad, but later said they regretted that decision: "We are not persuaded that advertising infringes on religious practices, and would be reluctant to make similar accommodations in the future."
Some observers note the difference between actions of a private business and those of government authorities on public land. For example, many Christian pharmacists in private businesses have refused to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill.
Many American government bodies have been very accommodating to Muslims, often setting aside special rooms for noontime prayers. In recent years some classic Supreme Court cases have concerned claims of religious liberty in areas as unlikely as peyote-smoking, and it's often small cases that lead to major decisions.