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A two-tiered airport taxi system could lead to 'Chapter Two'

  • Article by: Katherine Kersten
  • Star Tribune
  • October 16, 2006 - 12:02 AM

Imagine you're returning from a trip with a bottle of French wine to celebrate your wedding anniversary. At the airport, you drag your bags out to the taxi stand in the cold breeze. As the cab pulls up, you hoist your suitcases, eager to get home.

But when the driver spots your wine, he shakes his head emphatically. The Qur'an prohibits him from accepting passengers with alcohol, he tells you. OK, so you'll take the next cab. But the next driver waves you off, and the next.

Scenes like this have played out hundreds of times at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over the last few years. About three-fourths of the 900 taxi drivers at the airport are Somali, many of them Muslim. In September, the Star Tribune reported that one flight attendant had been refused by five drivers, because she had wine in her suitcase.

Taxi drivers who refuse a customer, except for safety reasons, must go to the end of the taxi line.

They face a potential three-hour wait for the next fare. Muslim drivers asked for an exemption, and officials of the Metropolitan Airports Commission proposed color-coded lights on cab roofs to indicate whether the driver would accept a passenger carrying alcohol.

But last week, the MAC announced that it would not adopt the new policy. Officials cited an overwhelmingly negative public reaction, among other reasons. "I've had over 500 e-mails and calls, and not one supported the change," said Patrick Hogan, MAC spokesman.

Why? Aren't Americans accustomed to granting modest legal accommodations to groups or individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs?

For many people, Hogan speculates, the issue may have been bigger than drivers' reluctance to transport alcohol. "I think people were afraid there would be a Chapter Two."

In some other cities, "Chapter Two" has already begun. Muslim cab drivers elsewhere, for example, have refused to transport blind customers with seeing-eye dogs, which they say their religion considers unclean. On Oct. 6, the Daily Mail of London reported that two cab drivers had been fined for rejecting blind customers. In Melbourne, Australia, "at least 20 dog-aided blind people have lodged discrimination complaints" after similarly being refused service, the Herald Sun reported.

In Minneapolis, Muslim taxi drivers have repeatedly refused to transport Paula Hare, who is transgendered, KMSP-TV, Channel 9, reported this month.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote about the MAC's two-light proposal in the New York Sun on the day its rejection was announced. While the proposal seemed like a common-sense compromise, he wrote, on a societal level, it has massive and troubling implications. Government sanction of a two-tiered cab system would amount to an acknowledgement that Shari'a, or Islamic law, is relevant to a routine commercial transaction in the Twin Cities. The MAC, a government agency, would be officially approving a signal that differentiates those who follow Islamic law from those who don't.

And what if Muslim drivers demand the right not to transport women wearing short skirts or tank tops, or unmarried couples? After taxis, why not buses, trains and planes? Eventually, in some respects, our society could be divided along religious lines.

The negative reaction to the two-tiered solution does not spring from hostility to Muslims. Muslims have thrived in America. On average, they are well-integrated and have higher incomes and more education than other Americans, according to Peter Mandaville, director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University in Virginia.

America offers Muslims an important advantage beyond economic opportunity. We are a more religious people than Europeans, and so more respectful of religious belief. The first freedom guaranteed in our Bill of Rights, after all, is the free exercise of religion.

But the issue at the MAC seems to raise nagging "Chapter Two"-related questions. It suggests that -- if we don't handle such matters right -- down the road could lie a legally sanctioned religious separatism that is incompatible with America's unifying civic vision.

Katherine Kersten •

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