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Last Updated: Feb 11, 2014 - 5:11:05 AM
Airport taxi controversy: Why here?

Muslim taxi drivers serve airports throughout the country. Yet a dispute about cabbies refusing on religious grounds to take passengers with alcohol has flared only in the Twin Cities.

Some Muslim leaders said the alcohol controversy is part of a larger ideological clash within Minnesota's growing Somali community, which they said helps explain why the issue erupted here without spreading to other cities.

"There is a group of orthodox Islamic groups who are using the Somali community," said Martin Mohamed, head of the Immigrant Credit Education and Financial Counseling Agency in Minneapolis. "We have seen this all the time. They want to make their own political agenda here, using the Somali cabdrivers."

Other community leaders said the alcohol matter is a legitimate issue of faith, one in which committed Muslims are standing up for their religion.

"It's not for radical purposes," said Abdirahman Omar Ahmed, the imam, or prayer leader, at the Abuubakar Islamic Center in South Minneapolis. "They are talking about their faith, nothing else."

Either way, some community activists said they worry the flap will spark a backlash that hurts Somali immigrants and other Muslims.

"Most community organizations like mine and others work toward building relationships and networking," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community of Minnesota. "I'm concerned that when I try to place a woman in a factory or a person on an assembly line, I worry that the employer will think: 'Oh, don't hire this person; they might want to change the rules of the work site.' You don't want that kind of baggage."

Fahia said he was speaking only for himself, not his organization.

Although the cabdriver dispute has only recently heated up, the issue didn't surface overnight. It's been brewing as far back as 2000, and even as long as there have been Muslim drivers here, some cabbies say.

The drivers insist that Islamic law forbids them from taking passengers who have sealed bottles of wine or other liquor in their luggage, because that would mean they are participating in a sin. Airport officials said some Muslim drivers also have expressed concern about picking up passengers with dogs, citing religious concerns about the animals' purity.

After trying to work with Muslim leaders — at one point ditching a compromise plan involving colored lights for "non-alcohol" taxis — the Metropolitan Airports Commission now appears poised to clamp down on drivers who refuse customers. Airport staff have recommended increasing the penalties, including suspending drivers' airport taxi licenses for repeat violations. The commission is expected to vote next month.

Several Somali leaders said they have been asked by community members to give their opinion on the issue. Ahmed, whose mosque is said to have the largest Somali membership in the Twin Cities, said taxi drivers asked him about a decade ago for a fatwa, or Islamic legal opinion, about whether they should allow alcohol in their cabs.

His answer to the cabbies: Don't do it.

That fatwa was never written down. But last year, when the cabbies were negotiating with the airports commission for some accommodation of their faith, the drivers asked the Muslim American Society of Minnesota for a written fatwa. That ruling, issued in June, seconded Ahmed's stance.

But some Somalis suspect there's more to the taxi dispute than religion.

"The Twin Cities has become — more than any other city — the center of fanaticism and extremism as far as Somalis are concerned," said Omar Jamal of the Somali Peace and Justice Center in St. Paul.

Carrying alcohol in cabs "is not an issue at all for most of the Somali community, but (leaders) use that as a political platform."

Jamal said he believes the goal is to raise money and gain influence on the political situation in Somalia.

Hassan Mohamud was one of four members of the fatwa committee of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, which issued the written taxi ruling. The difference here, Mohamud said, is that local cabbies are educated people who found out that in America, they have rights.

Nobody is exploiting them, he said.

"A Muslim person asking to practice their religion cannot be called extremist or terrorist," Mohamud said.

Ali Guled, a taxi driver who has worked at the airport for seven years, said Muslim drivers in other cities do, in fact, refuse to carry alcohol. The reason it hasn't become an issue, he said, is that management at other airports doesn't make a big deal of it.

"In Minneapolis, they've exaggerated it," Guled said. "The MAC (Metropolitan Airports Commission) is making the conflict between customers and drivers."

But Muslim leaders elsewhere said they had not heard of any refusals of service in their cities.

"We have not found another, similar situation anywhere in the U.S.," said Ali Khan, national director of the Chicago-based American Muslim Council, who describes his group as "vigilant" about tracking issues related to Muslim-Americans.

Khan said individual Muslims may do what they think is best to abide by their faith, and certainly becoming intoxicated is prohibited.

But when cabbies refuse to take a customer bearing wine or other liquor, "I think you're being somewhat judgmental — and that's another thing that's prohibited in the Quran," Khan said.

"It's not a common issue around the world — I don't know exactly why it cropped up in Minnesota," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group.

In that city, his organization helped Muslim taxi drivers lobby for a prayer room at Reagan National Airport, where they make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the cabbies, Hooper said. But liquor has not been an issue.

"The bottom line is, no Muslim is going to be happy about carrying somebody who's transporting alcohol," Hooper said. "Then the question is, is it part of your contract in carrying the public?"

Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement in New York, said refusing to take a passenger with alcohol "is something that is not really mainstream interpretation" of Islamic law.

"If that were the case, I think that most of the cabbies in New York City would not be driving cabs. They would be selling fruit or watches," she said.

Officials at several other airports — including in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco — said the issue has never been a problem.

"That has not occurred once that we've heard of," said Michael Conway, director of public affairs for the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. "If we were to have that problem, we would go to the company and say, 'Cab 435 refused a fare, and that's a violation of the contract.' "

Detroit is unusual in that the airport contracts with a taxi association. In the case of Minneapolis-St. Paul and most other airports, most cabdrivers are independent contractors.

Whether to carry alcohol comes down to a personal decision, said Waleed Meneese, an Egyptian Muslim and imam at the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minneapolis.

"Maybe they're following some other scholars," he said. "Most imams here in Minnesota tell them it's OK."

Source: Pioneer Press

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