When flight attendant Eva Buzek returned to Minneapolis from a trip to France, five taxi drivers refused to take her home from the airport. The reason? She had two bottles of wine in her suitcase -- and the drivers were Muslims, who don't drink and refuse to have alcohol in their taxis.
About three-quarters of the 900 taxi drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are Somalis, many of them Muslim. And about three times each day, would-be customers are refused taxi service when a driver sees they're carrying alcohol.
"It's become a significant customer-service issue," said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, on Thursday.
Now the airports commission has a solution: color-coding the lights on the taxi roofs to indicate whether a driver will accept a booze-toting fare. The actual colors haven't been decided on yet, but commission officials met Thursday with representatives of the taxi drivers and the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society to continue working on the plan.
The airports commission has struggled with the issue for several years. Alcohol is a serious concern for devout Muslims, said Hassan Mohamud, an imam and vice president of the society. The Qur'an, Islam's holy book, strictly forbids buying, selling, drinking or carrying alcohol.
The observant drivers object only to transporting openly displayed alcohol, said Ali Culed, a Somali Muslim who's been driving an airport cab for eight years. They won't search passengers or quiz them about what's in their bags.
"It is a religious issue," Culed said. "I cannot force anybody to change their belief, but not in my cab. I don't want the guilt. I just want to be an innocent person."
Hogan said taxi starters at curbside will look for duty-free bags with bottles or other obvious signs of alcohol and steer riders to cabs whose drivers don't object to booze.
Buzek, the flight attendant, said she was refused service in March after she told a driver to be careful with her suitcase because it had wine in it. Other drivers in the taxi line passed the word, she said, and four more refused her service. A dispatcher finally steered her to a driver who would take the fare.
Buzek, who grew up in Poland, said her treatment goes against American values.
"I came to this country and I didn't expect anybody to adjust to my needs," she said. "I don't want to impose my beliefs on anyone else. That's why I'm in this country, because of the freedom.
"What's going to be next? ... Do I have to cover my head?"
Mohamud said that wouldn't happen.
"According to Muslim law, a Muslim driver cannot question a person's faith or beliefs," he said. "It's not a matter of the person, it's what the person is carrying."
If other religious issues come up, they'll be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Hogan said.
"We can't promise that we can accommodate every religious belief," he said. "Our interest is in making sure people can get a cab."
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