Intolerance in the Twin Cities

Posted: Mar 30, 2007 12:01 AM
Intolerance in the Twin Cities

Tolerance is a two-way street, as a group of Somali taxi drivers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., are about to find out. In May, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in the Twin Cities is set to adopt new rules that will punish cabbies who refuse to haul passengers carrying liquor, even though the drivers claim their Muslim faith forbids them to do so.

The issue has come to a head in the Twin Cities because a popular local imam issued a fatwa last June forbidding Muslim drivers from transporting liquor in their taxis. The prohibition is not widely shared among Muslims elsewhere in the United States, but it has caused quite a stir in Minneapolis and St. Paul, home to the nation's largest Somali community. More than 600 airport taxi drivers in the cities are Somali, most of them Muslim.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about 100 passengers each month are denied transportation for carrying alcohol. But that will change if the MAC goes forward with a plan to suspend for 30 days the license of any driver who refuses customers for reasons other than safety; a second offense could lead the driver to lose his license for two years.

Some Muslim drivers claim the rules single them out for religious persecution -- and they vow to fight the penalties as an infringement of religious liberty. What the drivers seem to be saying is, we expect non-Muslims to respect our beliefs and practices, but we aren't required to tolerate theirs.

The Somali intolerance doesn't just extend to alcohol. Some drivers have also refused to carry blind passengers with guide dogs, on grounds that the Koran says dog saliva is unclean. And some Muslim store cashiers in the Twin Cities have refused to scan pork products, alleging this also violates their faith.

There is a strong tradition in the United States of granting great deference to religious practices and beliefs, but there is also a tradition of not forcing those beliefs on others who do not share them -- which is where the Somalis have run afoul.

Today, these drivers are objecting to contact with customers who have alcohol, pork or dogs with them; tomorrow it may be refusing to allow women with bare heads in their cabs.

How would the Somalis feel if the shoe were on the other foot? For example, what if most Twin Cities taxi drivers belonged to a religious sect that abhorred Islamic practices, insisting that women's heads never be covered? Would the Somalis think it was perfectly fine to allow cab drivers to pass up Muslim couples if the woman was wearing traditional dress with her head covered? I doubt it.

No one has forced the Somalis to become taxi drivers. If their religious views prohibit them from having any contact with people who do not share those views, they shouldn't choose jobs in the public service sector.

Some strict religious sects remain in their own enclaves to avoid what they see as the corrupting influence of non-believers. Others venture out into the world but pick professions that offer the least conflict. You don't expect to see an Orthodox Jew becoming a pig farmer or a devout Mormon becoming a wine taster.

Of course the Somali drivers could have sought a reasonable accommodation for their scruples. They could have courteously explained to passengers that they can't touch alcohol and asked if the passengers would carry the bags containing alcohol themselves. If they did so with genuine civility, I expect most passengers would oblige without resentment.

Instead, they've tried to force the issue and caused a confrontation that can only make adjustment to their adopted country more difficult.