Jan. 26, 2007— -- Commissioners at one of the country's biggest airports are considering punishing Muslim cab drivers who refuse service to passengers possessing alcohol or guide dogs.
The cabbies claim transporting those items violates Islamic law.
"It is against our faith and the airport is discriminating against Muslim drivers," says a cab driver who would only give his first name, Hashim.
Three-quarters of the 900 cabbies licensed to operate at the airport are Muslim, most from Somalia. It is unclear how many are adhering to this letter of Islamic law which considers the purchase, drinking and transport of alcoholic beverages a sin.
Islam also regards the saliva from dogs to be unclean.
Nearly 40 million people travel through Minneapolis-St Paul airport annually.
Over the past 5 years, airport officials say 5,400 passengers have been turned away.
Some had guide dogs or pets, others were carrying cases of wine from California, or liquor from duty-free shops.
"There are times where cab after cab will refuse service, and passengers can be waiting for 20 minutes," says Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "We've had complaints of people being asked if they had any alcoholic beverages in their luggage."
Hogan admits the instances have declined in recent months with the Department of Homeland Security's restrictions on transporting liquids.
"We were seeing an average of 77 refusals a month," he says, "Now we're seeing between 8 and 20."
The state agency that licenses cab drivers prohibits discrimination against passengers unless the driver feels his life is in danger.
"This is a public access issue," says Chuck Samuelson, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, "Bottom line is we are a secular society, and that's the way it is."
Minnesota's Muslim American Society had offered a compromise measure last year to color code cabs that would not transport alcohol, but the airport commission turned the proposal down.
Currently, cabs that refuse a fare must simply go to the back of the line.
But, under the new proposal, drivers who decline to provide service would face a 30-day suspension of their license. Second offenders would have their licenses revoked.
"This type of job helps immigrants move to the next level," says Hassan Mouhamud, Imam of the AlTaqwa Mosque in St. Paul, and a scholar of Islamic Law.
"Blocking that," he says, "can cost jobs, it can also cost immigrants and their families the American dream."
Mouhamud says there are schools of Islamic thought that allow for compromise.
He says under the Hanafi School of Islamic law, if Muslims live in a country that does not enforce their religious law, they can defer to the written laws of that country.
"American society has a rule of respecting religions," says Mouhamed. " We hope there is room to accommodate all faiths."
"It's not a case of good guys versus bad guys," says airport commission spokesman Patrick Hogan," It's simply individuals who want to do right by their religion, and an airport that wants to do right by its customers."