Free rides for the blind?

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, with hundreds of waiting taxi drivers behind a nearby SuperAmerica station, has become a focal point of the angst. Nearly 75 percent of the 900 licensed cabbies are Muslim, mostly Somali. And six prayer-leading imams are suing airport management after being pulled from a plane in November.

Airport commissioners have expressed concern about cabbies refusing to pick up fares because of Islamic prohibitions against carrying alcohol. They also worry that Islamic rules about dogs might prompt drivers to decline rides when 300 visitors with guide dogs attend the American Council of the Blind convention in Minneapolis this summer.

Abdinoor Ahmed Dolal, a Muslim cab driver from Kenya, was stunned by the commissioners’ concerns. The Qur’an places high value on assisting the disabled, he said. So Dolal says Muslim cabbies have offered to give blind conventioneers free rides to Minneapolis, forgoing the $30 fares as a sign of good will.

“The issues we have are so simple and have nothing to do with extremism or fanaticism,” Dolal said. “We are Muslims and we are Minnesotans and if we sit down and listen to each other, we can work things out.”

According to airport commission statistics, 27 riders were refused service because of objections over alcohol between Nov. 11 and Jan. 10. With roughly 120,000 cab rides from the airport in that span, the percentage of refusal was very small.

Ellison: Growing pains

Minnesota’s Muslim population is anything but monolithic, with doctors from Egypt, researchers from India, hair stylists from Kosovo and Iowa-born women such as Lori Saroya, the chairwoman of the recently rekindled local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Her group opened a small office in St. Paul last week and hopes to provide advocacy and education on Islamic issues.

CAIR’s national office has sparked controversy over various political stands and has been accused of having links to terrorist groups in the Middle East, a charge its leaders adamantly dispute. Saroya said she hopes “people won’t prejudge us and will give us a chance to spread understanding.”

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, who this year became the first Muslim in Congress, likens the recent disputes to growing pains any new immigrant group endures. As an American-born Muslim, Ellison says he has had an easier time than Somalis in following his faith.

“Some of these people come from places that had no pork or alcohol,” Ellison said. “It’s more of an immigrant adjustment than a religious story for me. Remember when the Hmong immigrants arrived and everyone was whispering about cats and birds disappearing?”

Ellison and others insist the future is bright for the nearly 50,000 Somalis in Minnesota, many of whom began fleeing civil war in the 1990s.

“The first generation is more likely to confront the cultural clashes,” said Ayed, the math teacher. “I’m sure our children will be better off in developing tolerance.”


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