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Some sobering lessons from Muslim taxi drivers

Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

Understandably, those troubled by the contemporary Muslim world point to the amount of gratuitous violence emanating from it and the apparent absence of Muslim anger against it.

In response, Muslim defenders of their faith — and Western defenders such as Karen Armstrong and John Esposito — inform us that the terror, suicide and cruelty that emanate from a portion of the Muslim world are all aberrations. We are assured that the average Muslim is as appalled as all other decent people are by Muslims who torture, decapitate and blow up innocent people.

Some recent news items from Britain, Australia and the United States, however, suggest that we can make a more accurate assessment of contemporary Islam by looking beyond Islamic terror and beyond the lack of Muslim opposition to it.

I am referring to news reports not about Muslim terrorists but about the far more mundane group of religious Muslims who happen to be taxi drivers. In Britain and Australia, Muslim taxi drivers refuse to pick up passengers who have a dog with them — even when the passenger is blind and the dog is a Seeing Eye dog. Nearly all religious Muslims believe that Islam forbids them to come into contact with dogs. Therefore, Muslim taxi drivers will even drive by a blind person standing in the cold, lest they come into contact with the dog.

And in Minneapolis, Minn., Muslim taxi drivers, who make up a significant percentage of taxi drivers in that city, refuse to pick up passengers who have a bottle of wine or other alcoholic beverage with them.

This is significant. We are not talking here about Muslim fanatics or Muslim terrorists, but about decent every day Muslims. And what these practices reveal is something virtually unknown in Judeo-Christian societies — the imposing of one’s religious practices on others.

Now, many of those with a graduate degree in the humanities, and others taught how not to think clearly, will object that religious Christians do exactly this sort of thing when they try to impose their religious views on abortion, for example, on society.

But there is no analogy between a Muslim not allowing a non-Muslim to bring a bottle of wine or a dog into a Muslim-driven taxi and Christians trying to convince a democratic society to outlaw most abortions.

There is no comparing ritual prohibitions with moral prohibitions. Christians argue that taking the life of a human fetus where the mother’s life is not endangered is immoral. And so do religious Jews (and Muslims) and many secular individuals — because the issue of abortion is a moral issue. Contact with dogs, on the other hand, is a ritual issue, not a moral issue. Which is why non-Muslims do not consider it immoral — unlike the many non-Christians who consider most abortions immoral.

And Christians and others who deem abortions immoral when the mother’s health is not threatened have as much right to argue for passing laws banning most such abortions as other citizens do to pass laws banning racial discrimination.

Ah, the skeptic may argue, but what if Muslims deem human contact with a dog (except, according to Muslim jurists, for security purposes, farming and hunting) an immoral act, not just a ritually prohibited act for Muslims?

If indeed such were the Muslim argument, we would have an example of an unbridgeable difference between a Muslim conception of morality and that of non-Muslims.

There is then no analogy between Christians wanting to use the democratic process to ban a practice regarded by hundreds of millions of non-Christians as immoral and the Muslim ban on human contact with dogs, a practice regarded by no non-Muslims as immoral.

The appropriate analogy to Muslim taxi drivers refusing to take passengers accompanied by a dog or carrying a bottle of wine would be religious Jewish taxi drivers refusing to take passengers eating a ham sandwich or Mormon drivers refusing to take passengers drinking alcoholic or caffeinated drinks.

But such Jewish or Mormon examples don’t exist (and if they did, religious Jews and Mormons would regard such persons as crackpots). They do not exist because Jews and Mormons do not believe that non-Jews are required to change their behavior owing to Judaism’s or Mormonism’s distinctive laws. Religious Muslims, on the other hand, do believe that wherever applicable, non-Muslims should change their behavior in the light of Islam’s distinctive laws. And that difference is at least as important to Muslim-non-Muslim relations as the vexing issue of violent Muslims.

As for the difference between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians, a Christian mailman in Denver called my radio show to say that despite his profound religious objections to pornography, he could not imagine objecting to delivering even the raunchiest porn to homes that ordered it. First, religious non-Muslims, especially in America, believe that liberty, too, is a religious value; that is why Christians put a quote about liberty from the Torah on the Liberty Bell. And second, they have no doctrine that holds outsiders bound to their religious practices.

And that is why there may be more to be learned about the future of religious Muslims’ relations with non-Muslims from Muslim taxi drivers than from Muslim terrorists.

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