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Somali Taxi Drivers in Minnesota in Dispute Over Passengers with Pets, Alcohol


Many Muslim taxi drivers are refusing service to passengers carrying alcohol, and sometimes pets, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the Midwest U.S. state of Minnesota. They say it is for religious reasons. But airport officials recently held hearings to consider tough, new penalties against those drivers because they say religious beliefs should not interfere with the job. VOA's Deborah Block has more from Minneapolis.

Airport officials say an average of 12 people each month are denied taxi service at the airport because they are carrying alcohol.

About three-quarters of the 900 airport taxi drivers are from the East African country of Somalia, and they are mostly Muslim. Somali cab driver Mohamoud Mohamud says he will not take passengers with alcohol.

"It is against my religion, and I don't think I can carry somebody who has alcohol," he says.

Islam prohibits drinking alcohol. But it is debatable whether the religion forbids anyone from carrying alcohol.

Last year, the airport commission received a fatwa, or religious edict, from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The group said Islamic law prohibits taxi drivers from taking passengers with alcohol because it involves cooperating in sin. But spokesman Hesham Hussein says Muslim scholars have different interpretations.

"Applying it to the airport situation, to the cab drivers, there is a difference of opinion amongst people whether [by] carrying a person who is carrying alcohol, you are helping him do that or are you actually carrying the person and you don't have to worry about what they're carrying with them," Hussein says.

Airport officials say a few Muslim taxi drivers also refuse to carry passengers with animals, especially dogs. Hassan Mohamoud, a local Muslim spiritual leader or imam, says Islam considers dogs unclean.

"There is a question of whether the saliva of dog touches the body of the Muslim. They have to wash that at least seven times before they pray," he explains. "So they are trying to avoid the saliva of the dog, but they're not trying to avoid the whole dog."

College student Nickie Coby is blind and uses a service dog. She is concerned that people with service dogs are not allowed in some taxis. "When you agree to become a cab driver, I think, to some extent you have to be willing to transport everyone," she says.

Currently, drivers who refuse to take passengers must go to the end of the taxi line. They wait for their turn in a nearby parking lot where it may take two hours or more before they are called back to the airport.

"Unfortunately, that penalty hasn't been enough to encourage drivers not to refuse people," says Patrick Hogan, an airport commission spokesman. "We still have the problem of people coming to the airport just thinking that they're going to get a ride home, to a hotel or wherever they're going, and lo and behold they can't get a ride because they happen to have a dog with them or cat with them or alcohol in their possession."

If the new regulations are passed, drivers who refuse passengers the first time will have their airport taxi license suspended for 30 days. The next time they lose their license for two years.

Somali taxi driver Muse Mohamud thinks the penalties are too harsh. "It's wrong if they suspend the license for somebody because of his faith or religion," he says. "It's absolutely wrong, wrong."

But cab driver Rick Heil sees things differently. "Even though it may fall against somebody's religious beliefs, the benefit should go to the person who needs the service," he says.

Ethiopian driver Kidist Gemtow is not Muslim. She says the Muslim cab drivers knew what they were getting into when they took the job. "They have to decide to work here or leave the place and find another job," she says.

On April 15, the airport commission expects to make a decision on whether to impose the new regulations, which would begin in mid-May. If that happens, hundreds of drivers may decide to leave or possibly lose their jobs.