Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Minnesota and Muslims

This weekend, the Star Tribune ran an article summarizing recent efforts to accomodate -- or not -- our growing Muslim population. Since then I've been noodling on it, trying to figure out where I stand on particular instances of accomodating minority practices.

First, the background. A while back we had a brouhaha over airport cab drivers refusing to transport alcohol. Then there were the Muslim cashiers at SuperTarget who didn't want to touch (or scan) packages of pork, and now this:

Minneapolis Community and Technical College is poised to become the state's first public school to install a foot-washing basin to help the school's 500 Muslim students perform pre-prayer rituals. "We want to be welcoming," MCTC President Phil Davis said, noting a student was hurt trying to wash in a regular sink.

First, let's put things in perspective. Listing each case like this makes it sound like the Twin Cities are awash in such controversies. They're not. Each of these is an essentially isolated incident in a metro area with a population close to 3 million. We have a sizable Muslim population, so we have more such incidents than cities that don't. But you're still talking about a small number of conflicts.

That said, let's address the philosophical and practical aspects raised in the article.

In each instance, you have a tension between customer service and religious belief. The question is how far do we go to accomodate belief? I'm perfectly willing to make reasonable accomodations. But what constitutes reasonable is a matter of opinion.

Let's take them one at a time:

Taxi drivers. They don't have a leg to stand on. They are licensed (and their numbers limited) by the city to provide transportation services from the airport. If they don't want to carry people who have alcohol, they need to get another job.

Cashiers. It's not that they refuse to sell pork; it's that they don't want to touch it. So they ask a co-worker and sometimes the customer to scan it for them. As a customer, that wouldn't bother me too much, so for me this falls into the "reasonable accomodation" category. But mostly this is a private concern for Target Corp. If it decides accomodating such requests aren't worth the hassle -- or are harming customer relations -- then they can choose to change it. If enough people complain, you can be sure they will.

Foot washer. At first glance this one seems easy. MCTC is a taxpayer-funded two-year college, and so the answer seems obvious: no taxpayer money spent for an explicitly religious purpose.

If students are hurting themselves trying to wash their feet in the sink -- and frankly, I'm having a hard time visualizing how this could be a problem except for the very, very clumsy -- then a cheap and constitutional solution might be to simply educate students on alternative foot-washing methods like, say, carrying an empty water bottle with them that they can fill up and wash with.

But it turns out to be difficult, because there are additional considerations.

As an adult educational institution, MCTC is supposed to accomodate a range of students -- and has a competitive interest in doing so. Would it make competitive sense to turn off potential students simply because of inconvenient lavatory facilities? Building a mosque or a chapel would clearly be both unreasonable and unconstitutional. But a sink? Why not?

In the end, though, what persuades me is another relatively simple argument: A foot washer doesn't just serve Muslim students. Yes, they get a convenient place to wash their feet; but the rest of us benefit by keeping feet out of the regular sinks. Not to mention avoiding the lawsuits from the Clumsy Muslims Student Association.

I strongly support separation of church and state. But remember that the main point of that separation is to prevent a particular religion from exerting undue control over the state, or using the levers of government power to promote itself or force its beliefs on others. Absent such coercion, religion should be treated the same as other interest groups -- not better, but not worse, either.

America remains an overwhelmingly Christian nation; Muslims aren't going to be running things anytime soon. So providing a reasonable accomodation to a minority religion should be just fine, especially when the accomodation is small and benefits all students, not just the minority.

Accomodation is a case-by-case thing, as the mosque example demonstrates. And it's a two-way street as well: members of minority groups have an obligation to adjust their practices to the larger reality of American life as much as practicable before demanding special consideration for their situation. But assuming that has been done, then minor accomodations are not PC run amok or cultural surrender: they are a recognition that Muslims are a part of the American fabric, not a burr stuck upon it. And as that fabric changes, so too will some things that we have "always done" and never thought much about.

Which is a good thing, because that ability to change is one reason the United States has remained a vibrant nation through two centuries of global and social upheaval. Our foundation is strong because it is not overly rigid. And it's why the country will survive this wave of immigrants just like it survived the Italians and the Irish and the blacks and giving women the vote and all the other things that people at the time feared would destroy us. We will survive, and we will remain American in all the ways that matter -- and made stronger by the additional weave brought from overseas.

Just as long as the cab drivers don't give me a hard time for the wine bottle I brought back from vacation....

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Blogger Rumana said...

I recently began reading your blog, and I joyfully do so each day. I truly appreciate your throroughly considered perspectives, insight, and often humorous commentary. This particular entry strikes a special note with me because I am (a loosely-practicing) Muslim. I was prepared to experience some indignation/anger when I began reading - to my delight, I agreed with every one of your points and I think your "American fabric" thoughts are completely on point and completely missed by many in the US public.

On a different note, I've heard more outrage over the Target employee-pork incidents than over the Pharmacist-refusal to fill EC requests or Birth Control prescriptions. SAD!

Thanks for blogging!

3/28/2007 8:51 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Welcome, Rumana! Thanks for the comment.

I agree, it's illogical that the cashiers seem to have generated more controversy than the pharmacist refusals. It's natural, though: the farther something is outside or realm of normal experience, the more we tend to oppose it -- even if a dispassionate, logical assessment would show that makes no sense.

3/28/2007 9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I see here is an administration rushing to solve someones else's problem when they have not been asked. Nor do I see it even being expected by the injured party.

Allow people to address their personal choices, personally. There is no justifiable reason to expend public dollars for a remote incident of personal choice in which a person chooses to use a public convenience in a fashion for which it was not designed. In doing so, this person accepts all responsibility for their actions and related injuries, if any.

The problem here is not the injured party, or their religion. The problem is an over-eager administration willing to use public money to appease their sense of public responsiblity.

If the school administrator wishes to use their own money as a personal gesture, I say spend away. But, please, keep your hands out of my pockets when addressing someone else's personal decisions.


4/12/2007 7:53 PM  

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