Friday, January 26, 2007

Muslim cabdrivers and alcohol: What "should" they do? is running a story in their "Behind the Scenes" series about Muslim cabbies in St. Paul-Minneapolis who refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol. I suppose this is news--CNN says that 5,400 such incidents have occurred in the past five years, but out of how many total rides? It's an average of three times a day, at any rate. Yet CNN's reporting is needlessly provocative (and just plain dumb). Here's how Keith Oppenheim begins his story:
It's always interesting to me, that in my own country, I often get assignments where I walk into a room, and everyone looks and sounds different from me. Different language. Different culture. And sometimes, different beliefs.

On this story, I crossed such a threshold.

Well, hello there, whitey! Come on in! Note the complete vapidity of this lede. I find it not at all "interesting" that you could, even in "your own country," walk into a room where everyone "looks and sounds different" from you--in this case, different from a thirty-something white guy in a suit. Some examples: A gay bar. A bridge club. A retirement home. A record store. A construction site. A roadhouse bar. In all such cases, you could very conceivably be of the same race, religion, political persuasion, language, and social class as the other people, not to mention many other factors. "Language" is possibly the only real "interesting" thing on the list--there are presumably many countries where it is not unusual to go one's whole life hearing the same language. But culture? What does that even mean? "And sometimes, different beliefs"? Who let this guy escape from the Borg? This is fucking America, buddy: We're supposed to consider it a good thing that we don't all believe the same things. But of course, this story is about dark-skinned Muslim people, so we have to think of Mr. Oppenheim as entering the heart of darkness or something. Onward, brave explorer!

I stepped into the taxi depot that serves the Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, where drivers sit and wait for their next fare. In this crowded, noisy room, most of the cabbies are Muslims originally from Somalia.

"We're doing a story about the conflict between the cabbies and the airport. The Muslim drivers have been refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol, such as wine or liquor purchased at a duty free shop," I explained.

A group of men gathered around us.

"This is America, we have freedom of religion," says one cabbie. We could see their feelings are intense -- that the issue seems to cut to the core of their identity.

Wow, so you entered into a circle of Muslim men expressing their intense feelings at you--and survived?! (As a side annoyance, notice the constant tense shifts in the writing. Is there any rhyme or reason to them?)

Oppenheim goes on to explain that airport officials sought a compromise by proposing that cabbies who were opposed to transporting alcohol could put special lights on the roofs of their cabs. The airport workers who direct people to cabs would then know who not to send people with alcohol to.
"But the feedback we got, not only locally but really from around the country and around the world, was almost entirely negative," said airport spokesman Pat Hogan. "People saw that as condoning discrimination against people who had alcohol."
As far as I can tell, "discimination" has no meaningful sense here, unless you think it is discrimination for Tavern on the Green to refuse seating to people in tanktops. Businesses can typically refuse the right to serve anyone and run the risks that they might suffer for it. The airport could have given any number of reasons for scuttling the idea (less business, too much time and effort, etc), but "discrimination against people who had alcohol" is not a good one.

The airport is now considering suspending those who refuse to transport the booze. At the end of the article, Oppenheim lets this know how this sits among the Muslim drivers:
For Adan, the choice is clear. "I would leave my job, instead of doing something that's not allowed in my religion," he said.

The interview with Adan took a long time. Our fare came to $150, a very good day for him. Normally, he makes about $100 a day, so it became more clear to us that refusing a fare is a big loss. But Adan said he won't accept the idea that in America a cab driver should allow something his religion forbids.

So, this particular man says he would leave the job. No word about protest, striking, lawsuits, etc. He would just quit. Great! That's how it's supposed to work. You come into a job with certain beliefs. If you find that because of those beliefs you are unable to perform your job in the way the company wants, they either fire you, or you quit. These are completely voluntary transactions. Contrary to what the snide author of this article implies, no one "should" allow something his or her religion forbids, especially as a private citizen in a non-federal job. The company and the workers, as private individuals, can attempt to work out the differences. If the company decides it simply will not put up with the problem, then I agree with the ultimate legality of firing the workers. But neither would a strike be out of bounds. If the workers want to strike to have certain changes made, that is their right as well. But of course this can't guarantee them keeping their jobs. Nor would people necessarily sympathize with their cause; I wouldn't.

Taking legal action seems to me totally absurd. I can't construe this situation as actively discriminating against Muslims. In any case, in the future the rules should be clear: We need you to be able to transport alcohol; otherwise, we won't offer you the job. I would expect this same sort of process to take place, for example, with someone who objects to transporting people who wear fur.

In scanning other news items on this subject (none written as terribly as this one), I see many reporters alluding to the incident a few years ago when Christian pharmacists refuse to fill out birth control prescriptions. This is indeed a good parallel. But in those cases as well, it's not anyone else's business as to whether the pharmacy fires the Christian refusers. Presumably, the pharmacy would receive so many complaints that they would offer a similar ultimatum: Fill out the prescriptions or we'll fire you. In the meantime, the customers can go somewhere else. (This itself is a form of complaint.) Does anyone know if a birth control user could actually sue the company for refusing to fill out her prescription? In any case, again, I don't really know what it means to say that the doctors "should" allow something their religion forbids. If all this means is, "You will be fired if you don't," then I agree. But to suggest that there's something wrong with them for believing what they believe here, "in America," is insulting.

I took a look at blogs posting about this issue as well. The most famous blog discussing the topic, the conservative Captain's Quarters, has this to say:

The MSA [Muslim Society of America] and its apologists want us to consider the religious and cultural sensitivities of the cabdrivers, but again, no one forced them to take jobs where they could come in contact with people who have service dogs or bottles of wine. Should a restaurant end its alcohol sales if it hires a Muslim waiter? Should supermarkets ban service dogs if it hires a Muslim cashier? No. It is the responsibility of the immigrant to assimilate into our culture and to obey our laws, not the other way around.
I agree with the first sentence of this post, but disagree profoundly with the remaining. Should a restaurant end its alcohol sales? It probably wouldn't, but that's not really for the Captain to say. It's for the company and its employees to figure out. Nor is it the "responsibility" of the immigrant to "assimilate" into our culture. They do need to obey the law. But there is no law being broken here, except in the case of cabbies refusing those with seeing eye dogs. Or am I missing something about taxicabs? Are they run by the state? Funded by the government in some way? How would this change things?

Coincidentally, I suppose I do think that the cabbies in question "should" allow alcohol, just as I think that the Christian pharmacists "should" fill out birth control prescriptions. I think I have reasonable claims to make for both positions. But I'm certainly not saying it's a prerequisite of being an "assimilated" American to hold such positions, which is what most of these sources seem to be implying, especially the Captain's Quarters blog and its grossly racist comments section.


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Good points, although the analogy with Christian pharmacists is inappropriate. Pharmacists are not like cabdrivers; there's often only one pharmacist operating an open pharmacy in a given location at a given time. Thus they possess a certain amount of power of their customers; indeed, this is power granted by government regulations which say that only a pharmacist may dispense certain drugs. Therefore, in the birth control case, there may have been situations in which customers would be deprived of a drug that has to be taken within a limited time after intercourse. That's why there was an uproar about it, and, because pharmacists are regulated by the government, I see no reason why they should be allowed to protest regulation that forces them to dispense medication.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Josh the Hippie Killer said...

I'm sure there is some variance in state taxi laws (I couldn't find Minnesota's), but had this happened in New York, these drivers would be violating the law.

NY Taxi Refusal Law, pg 33-35:

"(d) The driver must not refuse to transport a passenger's... property"

The only possible exception is if the driver thinks that the passenger's property will cause damage to the cab. So I guess if the driver beleives that transporting alcohol might cause Allah to 'damage' the cab (not being facetious), there might be a gray area, maybe.

Who knows what the laws are in the Twin Cities? But in the end, this seems like a problem that can be solved by the invisible hand.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

So, one can believe what they want as long as they don't have enough power to force others to conform to the their beliefs? This is a performative contradiction for you need someone in power to force everyone to conform to this particular liberal belief.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

The question of liberalism's enforcing its own beliefs is an important one. (Note, however, that I believe that liberalism has historically been connected to a sort of latent Christianity. Not that it can't be divorced from religion [I find this preferable], but liberalism has often carried the assumptions of [Protestant] Christianity.) However, the questioning of liberalism's hegemony in the social sphere ignores the fact that liberal religious tolerance *arises precisely* in response to the question of how to manage a heterogeneous society. Unless we actually want to close off the community of the faithful (is this perhaps a MacIntyre approach?), what better option do we have?

1:04 AM  

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