Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport hesitant to grant Muslim prayer room

Somali immigrant leaders also ask directors for signs in native language, exceptions for cabbies 

Pioneer Press 

Somali immigrants passing through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport want a private place to say Muslim prayers. The airport suggests they share a room with people of other religions. 

 

Like a new couple learning to dance, immigrants and their adopted countries often trip each other up, and the prayer-room issue is just one of the latest tangles between Somali immigrants and other Minnesotans. 

"Where you have Christians and Muslims praying at the same time, it will create a problem," said Fuad Ali, a Somali leader who spoke at a meeting of community members and airport officials Tuesday in Minneapolis. 

The prayer debate was sparked Nov. 20 when six imams — Muslim religious leaders — were removed from an airplane after they had been seen praying in public. According to witnesses, the men also made anti-American remarks, asked for seat-belt extenders they didn't need and spread out to different areas of the plane. 

The imams took another flight the next day. But the incident drew worldwide attention. Muslims decried the treatment of the men, saying it was discriminatory, embarrassing and fueled by false rumors. Others praised the airline for taking the men off the plane, saying safety must come first in the post-Sept. 11 age. 

Ali said Tuesday that he and other Somalis want a prayer room so they will not be faced with a similar incident. "What can guarantee that will not happen again?" he said. Airport Director Steve Wareham said if the airport provides a special area for Muslims to use, it potentially would have to accommodate other faiths the same way. 

"Our request would be you try the quiet seating area," he told the Somali immigrants. That existing area is a carpeted room that contains chairs but no religious symbols. It has been used for years but was never obvious to travelers, said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan. The airport intends to install more signs directing people to it on the mezzanine level near the Chili's restaurant, near the entry to the F Concourse. 

At the same time, there is no restriction on praying in other parts of the airport, Wareham said. Other issues continue to rile some Somali immigrants. Minnesota is home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the country. The state estimates about 25,000 Somalis live here, though community leaders say the number is closer to 60,000. Many of the airport's Somali taxi drivers refuse to accept passengers who are carrying liquor, because their faith forbids it.

The airport says it is a customer-service issue and has forced drivers who refuse fares to move to the back of the line, which can mean a wait as long as three hours for another fare. Wareham said he would recommend to the airport's management operations committee that it hold a public hearing on the matter.

He favors stiffening the penalties against cab drivers who refuse fares for any reason other than their own safety. "To be refused service by a taxi driver is, frankly, seen as an insult, and we don't want our customers to experience it," Wareham said. Somalis assembled at Tuesday's meeting at the Darul Quba Mosque in Minneapolis also wanted to know whether the airport would provide announcements and signs in Somali. 

Probably not, officials said. "The challenge is not inundating the air with messages people might start to ignore," said Arlie Johnson, an assistant airport director. At least the issue of the prayer room was met with some accommodation, said Abdirahman Hirsi, imam of the Darul Quba Mosque. 

"It's a kind of progress," he said. "And we hope the future will be better."


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