A new proposed ordinance in Minneapolis has been garnering considerable media attention. For some time, hundreds of Muslim cabdrivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have been refusing fares that they know are carrying alcohol. These fare refusals happen frequently enough that the airport and drivers have “worked out a proposal that calls for cabdrivers who won’t carry alcohol to have a cab light that’s a different color. That way, the airport workers who hook up travelers with taxis can steer alcohol-carrying fares to cabs that will take them.”
The Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS) was reportedly involved in engineering this proposal. I’ve previously written about MAS’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, in both The Daily Standard and The Dallas Morning News. But even a broken clock is right twice a day; MAS’s involvement does not necessarily mean that the proposal is a bad thing. Moving beyond the groups involved, the proposal itself deserves some consideration. Religious accommodations can be a positive thing; they can also be a negative. This proposal will almost certainly go into effect in Minneapolis, and there will be future calls in the U.S. to accommdate other laws to Islamic religious practice — and to the religious practice of other faiths. So it’s important to tease out some of the underlying issues related to the Minneapolis agreement.
A first aspect worth noting is the trend toward Western institutions accepting the most conservative interpretations of Islam and deciding that “this is what Islam holds.” In covering the airport proposal, Minneapolis’s Star Tribunedutifully reported, “The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, strictly forbids buying, selling, drinking or carrying alcohol.” This is plainly false: in the verses that deal with intoxicants, the Qur’an says nothing about carrying alcohol (2:219, 4:43, 5:90-91). However, a hadith commonly used in khutbas in the Middle East is relevant to the issue at hand: “May Allah curse wine, the one who drinks it, the one who pours it, the one who sells it, the one who buys it, the one who squeezes (the grapes etc.), the one for whom it is squeezed, the one who carries it and the one to whom it is carried.” The argument advanced by the Muslim cab drivers seems somewhat novel theologically. This hadith seems to condemn the person who transports wine for the purpose of commerce — as opposed to transporting someone who is carrying wine for their own consumption. Of course, sometimes one will be very careful in dealing with religious obligations to make sure that these obligations are not violated. But the fact that this point isn’t well established in Islam suggests that a quite conservative interpretation of religious obligations is here being touted as mainstream Muslim belief.
Second, the case for religious exemptions is strongest when they don’t impose costs on others. When the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that Muslim police officers can keep their beards, that may be an example of a court accepting a conservative interpretation of Islam (albeit one that is far more mainstream than the refusal to transport someone carrying alcohol), but it doesn’t impose external costs on others. In Minneapolis, this may not be a costless ordinance. Three-quarters of cabbies in Minneapolis are Somali Muslims. In the future, if you want to carry a duty-free bag out of the Minneapolis airport, you might face a long wait. Another issue that may lie ahead in terms of external costs is Muslim cab drivers who refuse to carry seeing-eye dogs for the blind, as is occurring in Australia.
Third, there is the question of U.S. law. Religious exemptions are designed to shield believers from laws that unreasonably compromise their freedom of conscience. But in some cases — as when a claimed religious belief discriminates on the basis of gender, or violates fundamental public policy — most people would believe that U.S. law should predominate over the claimed exemption. Where should this line be drawn? That is a vital question.
Ultimately, it is important to be cognizant of the kind of precedents we create with exemptions or ordinances that are attached to religion — whether or not that religion is Islam. The Minneapolis ordinance is a relatively trivial step, but it does pinpoint issues that may be far more important down the road.
UPDATE, OCT. 11, 2006, 10:16 A.M.: When I wrote this entry early on Tuesday, it seemed that the proposal would go into effect. However, the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which regulates airport taxi service, found that the proposal created a major backlash. Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan reported that the Commission received 400 e-mails and phone calls, almost all of which opposed the proposal. Thus, the Commission rejected it, leaving the current policy in place. As USA Today reports, the current policy “says drivers who will not transport alcohol must go to the back of the taxi line.”
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