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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Airport taxi flap about alcohol has deeper significance

Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune

The taxi controversy at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has caught the nation's attention. But the dispute may go deeper than the quandary over whether to accommodate Somali Muslim cabdrivers who refuse to carry passengers carrying alcohol. Behind the scenes, a struggle for power and religious authority is apparently playing out.

At the Starbucks coffee shop in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a favorite Somali gathering spot, holidaymakers celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan, filled the tables on Monday. Several taxis were parked outside.

An animated circle of Somalis gathered when the question of the airport controversy was raised.

"I was surprised and shocked when I heard it was an issue at the airport," said Faysal Omar. "Back in Somalia, there was never any problem with taking alcohol in a taxi."

Jama Dirie said, "If a driver doesn't pick up everyone, he should get his license canceled and get kicked out of the airport."

Two of the Somalis present defended the idea that Islam prohibits cabdrivers from transporting passengers with alcohol. An argument erupted. The consensus seemed to be that only a small number of Somalis object to transporting alcohol. It's a matter of personal opinion, not Islamic law, several men said.

Ahmed Samatar, a nationally recognized expert on Somali society at Macalester College, confirmed that view. "There is a general Islamic prohibition against drinking," he said, "but carrying alcohol for people in commercial enterprise has never been forbidden. There is no basis in Somali cultural practice or legal tradition for that.

"This is one of those new concoctions."It is being foisted on the Somali community by an inside or outside group," he added. "I do not know who."

But many Somali drivers at the airport are refusing to carry passengers with alcohol. When I asked Patrick Hogan, Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesman, for his explanation, he forwarded a fatwa, or religious edict, that the MAC had received. The fatwa proclaims that "Islamic jurisprudence" prohibits taxi drivers from carrying passengers with alcohol, "because it involves cooperating in sin according to the Islam."

The fatwa, dated June 6, 2006, was issued by the "fatwa department" of the Muslim American Society, Minnesota chapter, and signed by society officials.

The society is mediating the conflict between the cab drivers and the MAC. That seems odd, since the society itself clearly has a stake in the controversy's outcome.

How did the MAC connect with the society? "The Minnesota Department of Human Rights recommended them to us to help us figure out how to handle this problem," Hogan said.

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, thinks he knows why the society is promoting a "no-alcohol-carry" agenda with no basis in Somali culture. "MAS is an Arab group; we Somalis are African, not Arabs," he said. "MAS wants to polarize the world, create two camps. I think they are trying to hijack the Somali community for their Middle East agenda. They look for issues they can capitalize on, like religion, to rally the community around. The majority of Somalis oppose this, but they are vulnerable because of their social and economic situation."

The society

What is the Muslim American Society? In September 2004 the Chicago Tribune published an investigative article. The society was incorporated in 1993, the paper reported, and is the name under which the U.S. branch of the Muslim Brotherhood operates.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. The Tribune described the Brotherhood as "the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group."Because of its hard-line beliefs, the U.S. Brotherhood has been an increasingly divisive force within Islam in America, fueling the often bitter struggle between moderate and conservative Muslims," the paper reported.

The international Muslim Brotherhood "preaches that religion and politics cannot be separated and that governments eventually should be Islamic," according to the Tribune. U.S. members emphasize that they follow American laws, but want people here to convert to Islam so that one day a majority will support a society governed by Islamic law.

How are society members to respond when questioned about a Muslim Brotherhood connection? The Tribune cites an undated internal memo: "If asked, 'Are you the Muslim Brothers?' leaders should respond that they are an independent group called the Muslim American Society."

The April 2001 issue of the society's magazine, the American Muslim, lists "essential books" for understanding Islam. They include works by Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood's founder, and Sayyid Qutb, one of its most violent theoreticians.

Here's the flavor of these authors' writings:

"Always cherish the intention of jihad and the desire for martyrdom in the Way of Allah, and actually prepare yourself for that," wrote Al-Banna.

Osama bin Laden relied heavily on Qutb in formulating his world view, according to the 9/11 Commission. Qutb had "an enormous loathing of Western society and history," states the commission's report. He taught that "no middle ground exists" in the "struggle between God and Satan." All Muslims must therefore take up arms in this fight, he said.

Hassan Mohamud is vice president of the society's Minnesota chapter. The society is independent and has no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

The Minnesota chapter's website, however, states that the organization's roots lie in the Islamic revival movement that "brought the call of Islam to Muslim masses ... to reestablish Islam as a total way of life."

Mohamud says the society has three goals: to present the "real image" of Islam in American society, to preserve the identity of Muslims here and to "make that identity fit without having clashes between cultures and laws."

He emphasizes, however, that Muslims must follow shari'a, or Islamic law, in every aspect of their lives. "There are two conflicting systems here -- two ways of life -- that want to live in the same place and respect each other," he says. The society aims to facilitate conciliation between the two.

Mohamud adds that Americans need to learn about Islamic law because the Muslim population here is growing. That's why the proposed two-tier system for airport cabdrivers is important, he says. It could become a national model for accommodating Islam in areas ranging from housing to contractual arrangements to the workplace.

MAC officials will hold another meeting today about the airport controversy, and Mohamud says he will try to revive the two-tiered pilot project for taxis. Whatever the meeting's outcome, we now have reason to believe that the issue is only a prologue to a larger drama playing out in Minnesota and the United States.
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