The Metropolitan Airports Commission’s unanimous decision to crack down on cabbies who refuse to ferry passengers with alcoholic beverages didn’t bother most Muslims in the state as widely perceived. That’s because most Islamic scholars faulted the cabbies on this issue, accusing them of deviating from the mainstream interpretation of Islam.
Missing from the mainstream debate, however, is the underlying dimension of culture and country. Most of the 900 taxi drivers at the airport are from Somalia, a homogeneous country where the use of alcohol is almost non-existent. Nearly 100 percent of Somalis are Sunni Muslims.
Still, the interpretation that carrying alcohol is prohibited in Islam is largely influenced by deeply held cultural views. That’s not to say, however, that religion is not partially a ground for how most cabbies feel about the alcohol debate. It gets complicated from here, but one thing is certain: Culture feeds religion as much as religion influences culture—at least in this case.
Back in Somalia, the consumption of alcohol was confined to a few Western-educated government ranks, although the government officially banned alcohol. Drinkers were subject to witch hunts. Of course, that’s not the case here, though drinkers are not held in high esteem.
But the debate is not about consumption as much as it is about the permissibility of carrying a passenger with alcohol. Of the more than 20 imams I have spoken with regarding this issue, no more than three insist that pious Muslims should completely avoid dealing with alcohol.
Other imams, including the 10-member Islamic Jurisprudence Council of Minnesota, issued a ruling, urging Muslim cabbies to transport “all customers,” regardless of “what they carry or who they’re with.”
A lot of people wondered why the alcohol issue was unique to the Twin Cities since other major American airports, including JFK and O’Hare, have significant numbers of Muslim taxi drivers.
The answer is simple: Most of the drivers at these airports are either Muslim immigrants from countries that have non-Muslim majorities, such as India and Sri Lanka, or countries that have a substantial non-Muslim minority, such as Nigeria and Egypt. In both cases, the use of alcohol is prevalent and legal. In fact, many Muslims have business connections to the alcohol industry even though they might not consume it themselves.
Thus, Muslim taxi drivers who hail from countries where they have been exposed to alcohol tend to interpret the broad Quranic text as banning just the actual consumption as opposed to carrying or touching it. Conversely, cabbies who come from a culture where any dealing with alcohol is considered a sin, tend to take the stricter hands-off view.
To be fair, not all Somali Muslims agree with the airport cabbies. In fact, the issue has sparked passionate discussions among Somalis at mosques and on blogs. I wouldn’t put an exact figure on it, but it’s probably safe to say that most Somalis disagree with the cabbies, largely because many believe that it’s unrealistic to focus on less pronounced teachings of the religion under the circumstances.