MINNEAPOLIS -- Fuad Omer promises not to search anyone's bags. He's not even going to ask what's in them. He's going to pull up in his cab and take passengers arriving at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport where they want to go.
Unless he spies a gift box with a bottle of alcohol purchased at the duty-free shop. Or a case of wine from that trip to Napa Valley. Then he's not taking them anywhere.
Neither is Abukar Isse, or Mohamad Warsame.
In fact, ask any of the Muslim cabbies -- about 70 percent of the almost 800 drivers who serve the airport -- and each will refuse to carry alcoholic beverages. It's going to cost them, but they say Islamic law makes it clear.
It is forbidden.
And they won't be persuaded. Distant fares? Sorry. Big tippers? Thanks, but no thanks. Weary travelers? Next cab. If that bottle is visible, move down the line for the next non-Muslim cab driver. Islamic law prohibits Muslims from consuming, transporting or being in the presence of alcohol. Period.
An October log of all outgoing airport fares showed it happening almost twice a day out of some 2,150 daily rides. For passengers, the inconvenience is usually minor; the nearest non-Muslim cabbie is typically not more than a few car-lengths away.
But for the drivers, the consequences are costly. Any time drivers refuse a fare for any reason, they go to the back of the line. Waaaay back. Past the terminal, down a long service road, and into a sprawling parking lot jammed with cabs in Bloomington, where drivers sit idle for hours, waiting to be called again. Those are the rules.
It's done mainly to discourage drivers from shunning shorter fares, said Arlie Johnson, manager of landside operations for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Travelers who are headed straight for the nearby Mall of America -- typically about an $8 ride -- aren't as lucrative to drivers as someone who's headed downtown or farther. Without the rule, mall-goers would be shopping for a ride.
Airport cabbies, independent contractors who serve only the airport under the supervision of the MAC, say that with up to several hours' wait in between fares, they need every ride they can take to ensure a profitable day.
But where alcohol is involved, Muslim airport cabbies won't budge.
"This is not something that is in our minds," said Omer, who has yet to turn down a fare in six months of driving, but would. "This is our religion. We could be punished in the afterlife if we agree to this (transporting alcohol). This is a Koran issue. This came from heaven."
Damon Drake, outreach coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations chapter in Minnesota, said he has approached the MAC about accommodating Muslim drivers -- thus far to no avail.
"What we want is some kind of reasonable accommodation," Drake said. While a number of solutions were discussed, the one that most cabbies would like to see involves making a "special request" whenever a passenger is carrying liquor.
Special-request cabs include handicapped-ready vans, smoking cars and cars equipped to accept credit cards. When a customer has special needs, the special-request cars are called out of line, and no one loses his or her place. Drake said if those parameters were expanded to include passengers with alcohol, the problem would be solved.
But from what the MAC has seen so far, Johnson said, it isn't that simple.
"We're saying if you turned down any fare you wanted, that could be a real ugly situation," Johnson said. "We want to respect (cabbies') position as an independent contractor to make their own decisions, and at the same time, protect the passengers' right to service."
While the MAC considered the special-request option along with many others, it has decided to stand pat for now. It doesn't happen all that often, Johnson said -- considering the number of times a passenger is visibly toting alcohol, a Muslim taxi driver turns down fares at a rate of about one every 18 months.
It's not an issue for most cab drivers. Muslim or not, Minneapolis city cabbies don't have the option. Unless potential passengers are threatening or carrying cargo that will endanger the driver, they're forced to take the fare, and face suspension or loss of license if they don't.
Those rules are essentially the same at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where like Minneapolis, the airport is served by a separate fleet of cabs, said John Dunn, vice president of the Detroit Metro Airport Taxicab Association.
"We have a lot of Muslim drivers here, and none of them ever complain about alcohol," Dunn said.
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