Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Congressmen and Cabbies

When Keith Ellison, the Minnesota democrat and the first Muslim elected to Congress, took his oath of office in January on a Quran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, I experienced a sense of continuity with the past. It enabled me to glimpse, even if fleetingly, the dreams and aspirations of America’s founders and their stubborn influence in steering the nation toward worthy goals.

Irony, of course, complicates the picture. Consider the statements of Congressman Virgil Goode representing Albemarle County of Virginia, the birthplace of Jefferson.

In denouncing Ellison’s decision, Mr. Goode declared that Americans needed to “wake up” or else there would “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran.”

Was the Congressman worried about more elected Muslim officials, or was he disturbed that the Quran could become the norm for Muslim officials taking their oaths?

Both, as it turns out. Goode’s fundamental concern was Muslim immigration to America. “I believe that … we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.”

For the records, Ellison is not an immigrant. An African-American who traces his U.S. ancestry to 1741, the 42-year-old Congressman converted to Islam at 19 when he was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The irony has now come full circle.

It appears that cabbies at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in Ellison’s home state, one of the nation’s busiest, have been refusing to transport passengers carrying alcohol. Mostly of Somali descent, these Muslim cab drivers claim that transporting alcohol violates Islamic law.

What nonsense! Refusing tired travelers a service because they may be carrying alcohol violates only the laws of courtesy and reason. Islam bans drinking alcohol, as Mahmoud Ayoub, an Islamic scholar at Temple University said, not carrying it.

“What it comes down to,” explained Dr. Khalid Siddiqi, an Islamic scholar from San Jose, California, when I asked him about the issue, “is that many Muslims are unfortunately lacking in knowledge and are prone to anger and emotion that cloud their judgment. We saw an example of this during the Danish cartoon controversy. In this particular case, the Quranic verse that comes to mind is: O you who believe! Ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. (5:101) The cabbies have a responsibility to take their passengers from point A to point B. This is the agreement they have signed with the airport authority and they must fulfill it. That’s all.”

As an American-Muslim, I took pride in the support Congressman Keith Ellison received from many of his fellow-representatives and the dignity with which he confronted the bigotry directed against him. This pride was being undermined by the ‘holier-than-thou’, sanctimonious attitude of some Muslim cab drivers. Fortunately the attitude has significantly waned, which is a good thing. As the syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote: “It is foolish to needlessly invite negative attention. Why write Rush Limbaugh’s script for him?”

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