Some Muslim Cabbies Refuse Fares Carrying Alcohol

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS -- The ban on carrying liquids on commercial airliners has had an unintended consequence in Minneapolis: It has made catching a cab easier.

Over the past few years, a growing number of Somali taxi drivers in the Twin Cities have been interpreting Koranic prohibitions on carrying alcohol to include ferrying passengers with alcohol in their bags.

"If you are a cabdriver and a practicing Muslim, you can't carry alcohol," said Idris Mohamed, an adjunct professor of strategic management at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. "It would be the same for a practicing Christian trying to honor their beliefs."

When flight attendant Eva Buzek returned to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from France in March and told a cabdriver to be careful with her bag because there was wine in it, she was shocked at the response she got from the Somali Muslim driver.

"He said, 'I don't take alcohol,' " Buzek said in an interview this month. She said she was refused service by three more drivers. Then in August, Buzek told cabdrivers that she had wine in her bag even though she did not, just to test responses. She said four drivers refused her service that time as well.

"Some people have been refused by driver after driver after driver," said Pat Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Last month, the airports commission proposed putting colored lights on top of cabs to indicate which ones will carry alcohol, a compromise worked out in discussions ongoing since May with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. But the commission got about 2,000 e-mails opposing the idea and announced this month that it had scuttled the plan.

"Opposition came from both sides politically," Hogan said. "There are people who say, 'If they don't like the job, they should go back to Somalia.' And on the other side people are saying, 'We support diversity, but the Christian right is trying to tell us what to do, and now we're getting it from Muslims, too.' People were saying they wouldn't take a cab at all. . . . There was concern the industry as a whole would suffer."

About three-quarters of the 900 taxi drivers who serve the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport are Somali Muslims. The Twin Cities have the country's largest Somali population and are home to most of the state's about 11,200 Somalis.

"This is a Somali issue more than a Muslim issue," said Hogan, noting that Muslim drivers from other countries tend not to interpret the Koran the same way.

Younes, a Muslim cabdriver from Iran who asked that his last name not be used, has no problem transporting passengers with alcohol. "People are tired; they want to get home. You should just give them service no matter what," he said.

Drivers have to go to the end of the line if they refuse a passenger, which can mean a three-hour wait for another fare. "So if you turn down two passengers, you're waiting six hours," said airport taxi driver Abbsilan Hassa, 36.

Some residents are concerned that making accommodations for the drivers' stance against alcohol will open the door to further limitations, such as refusing service to women in revealing clothing or to unmarried couples. In England and Australia, there have been reports that Muslim cabdrivers have refused to take passengers with service dogs; many conservative Muslims consider dogs unclean.

"What's next? Will I have to cover my head or travel with a male companion?" asked Buzek, who immigrated here from Poland 37 years ago and said she expected to have to adapt to U.S. culture.

Somalis interviewed at several late-night coffee shops on a strip of Somali grocery stores, cafes and money-transfer outlets in downtown Minneapolis all thought Muslim drivers should have the right to refuse passengers visibly carrying alcohol.

"If the passengers don't show what they're carrying, it's not a problem," said Abdi Ahmed, 20, working in a lively, no-frills basement coffee shop where young Somali men crowded around a TV set watching soccer. "But if you're openly carrying it, Muslims don't accept that."

Most airline passengers interviewed on a busy Wednesday evening opposed any accommodations for Muslim drivers. "They should just worry about doing their job and getting paid like everyone else," said Perry McGahan, 49, a software engineer from the Minneapolis suburbs.

The controversy comes at a time of growing debate, in Minnesota and nationally, over what happens when the boundaries of religious freedom and job responsibility collide. Minneapolis air traveler Jack Tuomie, 63, compared the taxi drivers' position to that of Christian pharmacists who have refused to dispense the "morning-after" contraceptive.

The Minneapolis transit authority recently decided that a Christian bus driver would not have to drive a bus with an ad for a local gay magazine on it. She had complained that it was against her religious beliefs.

At workplaces nationwide, Muslims have demanded the opportunity to pray five times a day, as their faith dictates. Nine Somali workers at a Cold Spring, Minn., poultry plant filed a federal lawsuit on Oct. 6 alleging that they were not allowed to pray during work hours and that supervisors followed them into the bathroom on breaks to make sure they did not pray.

But the situation has improved at the Minneapolis airport since the Transportation Security Administration's ban on carrying liquids on flights. Hogan said that before the ban there were an average of 77 reports of service refusal a month; since Aug. 10 there have been only four a month. "Now it's mainly just people with packages from duty-free," he said. "But we'll continue working toward a goal of no service refusals."

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