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Muslim airport cabbies in Washington demand special prayer spaces

Top: Ritual cleansing in an airport bathroom; Middle: Preparing the allotted prayer space; Bottom: The act of prayer, required five times daily of practicing Muslims  

October 24, 1999
Web posted at: 8:39 p.m. EDT (0039 GMT)

By Correspondent Jonathan Aiken

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When Mohamud Alasso and other Muslim cab drivers at Washington's Reagan National Airport want to fullfill their obligation to pray five times a day, they meet under a canopy where they pick up arriving passengers.

"When I want to pray, I want to pray in front of God, and I want to have this place that is very clean," said Alasso.

The drivers say the space provided by the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority is a noisy, inappropriate spot unsuitable for prayer. They also are unhappy with a small bathroom in which they perform washing rituals before they pray.

Islamic leaders say they have been in negotiation with airport authorities for more than a year but seem to have come to a dead end.

The dispute boils down to a basic issue: public convenience versus private necessity -- the need to efficiently move thousands of travelers through a busy airport versus the right of the drivers to exercise their freedom to worship as they see fit.

The Council on American and Islamic Relations says that, of the 1,700 drivers permitted to pick up fares at Reagan National, about 70 to 80 percent are Muslim. But the airport authority says it can't favor one religion over another.

"We must balance the demands of the drivers against our primary interest, which is customer service," said the airport authority in a statement.

Georgetown University law professor Sherman Cohn said, "There's no legal duty on the part of the airport to supply either a place for prayer or special feet-washing sinks."

Airports in Denver and Minneapolis have also had to face the issue, which reflects the changing face of the United States and its growing workforce diversity.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations

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