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Muslim cab drivers make their case in hearing

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Cabs wait near the airport
cabs wait near the airport
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The rule at the airport cab stand is, if passengers are dangerous or intoxicated, drivers are not required to serve them. Cabbies who refuse service for any other reason must go to the end of the taxi line.  It can take up to three hours to reach the front again.  Drivers can lose time and money.

"It's worth it to me because of my belief," says driver Omar Farah. 

Farah says his Muslim faith does not allow him to serve anyone carrying alcohol.  He says he's refused several passengers for that reason.

"If I do that, I participate with a sin.  That person is committing a sin and I am participating with him. That's what the belief is," he says.

Cabbies waiting at Super America
Cabbies wait at Super America on Post Road
MPR Photo/ Marisa Helms

An estimated 70 percent of the roughly 900 taxi drivers serving the airport are Somali immigrants who are predominantly Muslim.  Not all of them refuse passengers carrying alcohol.  There are reportedly some Muslim drivers, though, who are also refusing rides to passengers traveling with pets. 

Farah says he doesn't have a problem with animals.  But, he says, some drivers are concerned about close contact with a dog or cat. 

"In his mouth, if you touch on your body or something else," he says, "that's considered contaminated, or something bad."

Farah says most of those cabbies can live with going to the back of the line. But, if the MAC starts suspending or revoking taxi licenses, as it's  proposing, Farah feels the MAC would be "breaking its promise," as he puts it.

MAC officials say taxi drivers need to remember they're in the business of customer service.

"It's always been MAC's policy, period, that people get served," says Commissioner Mike Landy

The MAC is moving in a fast track to tell the drivers either do it in a certain way or you have to basically give up your license, which is pretty unfortunate.

According to Landy, the MAC receives dozens of complaints--sometimes nearly 100 a month--from people who've been refused service, most because of alcohol. He says MAC staff have proposed new rules with more "teeth," and that's what the public hearings are about.  

The first offense would bring a 30-day suspension to cab drivers refusing service for any reason other than safety.  And if it happens a second time, the MAC would take away a cabbie's airport license.

Landy says the proposed ordinance emerged after an earlier compromise fell through.  The initial proposal would have put colored lights on top of cabs that would not take alcohol or animals.  He says that would have been a seamless solution, and he supported it.  But the proposal got international attention and brought thousands of complaints.  Landy says the MAC scrapped the idea because it feared passengers would misuse the accommodation. 

"Someone could walk up and say, 'I don't want a Muslim cabdriver. I'm unhappy with the notion they won't carry my alcohol.' They may not even have alcohol. It's this clash of cultures is what it amounts to," Landy says.

But leaders in the local Muslim community like Hesham Hussein say the MAC shouldn't have dismissed the colored-light proposal so quickly. 

"The MAC is moving in a fast track to tell the drivers either do it in a certain way or you have to basically give up your license, which is pretty unfortunate because I thought the solution that was reached between the two groups should have been given an opportunity at least to be tested," Hussein says.

Hussein, president of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, has acted as a facilitator between MAC officials and the taxi drivers on this issue.  He estimates that hundreds of Muslim cabbies could lose their jobs if the ordinance goes through.

He says he'd like the MAC to slow down, keep the conversation going, and stay open to other solutions.

Landy says he wonders if the proposed penalties go too far,  but he hasn't yet made up his mind.

Landy and two other commissioners will take public testimony on the new penalties and make a recommendation to the rest of the 15-member panel.  If the commissioners approve the ordinance, it would take effect in May.