Photo: Don Farrall / Getty Images
Should society sanction even greater discrimination and denigration when some members of a religion believe that their ancient religious texts require it? Some honestly believe so, which has led to blind people being refused cab rides when Muslim drivers say that the guide dogs are "unclean." Apparently, cab drivers deserve the right to discriminate against those passengers who, for whatever reason, are religiously "unclean."
In Vancouver, Bruce Gilmour filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal because North Shore Tax driver Behzad Saidy refused to give him a ride due to his guide dog.
It's against the law for cab drivers not to transport blind people with guide dogs, but a settlement agreement between Gilmour and the taxi company says an exception to that law would be a Muslim driver refusing to transport a dog because of religious beliefs.
But the policy says the driver has to call dispatch for the next available cab and stay with the blind person and guide dog until that cab arrives.
Source: The Toronto Star
At least this settlement means that blind people won't be left alone in potentially unsafe conditions, but they will still be faced with being told that their presence would render the driver "unclean" and, therefore, they aren't worthy of riding in the cab. Granted, it's the dog which is the target of accusations of being "unclean," but the reason why a ride is denied is that this would make the driver unclean — and if simply riding in a car with a dog makes one unclean, then how much more unclean is the person who uses the dog as a guide?
Gilmour, who has been blind for 30 years, filed a human rights complaint, alleging discrimination. "I'm tired of defending my dignity," he said in an interview Wednesday. ...
William Thornton, chief executive of B.C. Guide Dog Services, said Gilmour's experience was "all too common." There are about 150 guide dogs in B.C. Gilmour, who uses taxis regularly, said he's been fighting discrimination since 1985 when he got his first guide dog.
He said he's had arguments with cabbies who've refused to allow the dog in their cars and has been passed by taxis as he waits on the curb. "I'm humiliated and frustrated and it's an awkward position having to go into defending your rights because you're blind," Gilmour said.
Source: The Vancouver Sun
What's important to understand here is that Islam does not categorically forbid all possible contact or association with dogs. Even the Hadith (Muslim #3814) depicts Muhammad allowing people to keep dogs for hunting and protecting herds — both activities that would entail more contact with dogs than a few minutes in a car. Muslims who are in the physical vicinity of a dog are thus not violating any basic religious requirement (like not eating pork); instead, they are simply being made uncomfortable by the presence of an unclean animal (like someone eating a ham sandwich while in their presence).
Now, I won't argue that the discomfort of a Muslim being in the presence of a dog (or a ham sandwich) should be dismissed casually. I will argue, though, that what we are looking at is a driver's discomfort versus what a blind person is forced to endure when they are denied a cab ride, which is very different from forcing a driver to violate a basic religious requirement versus a blind person facing a minor inconvenience. In my opinion, the discomfort of being near a dog is less important than the right of a blind person to be treated with the same rights and dignity as all other citizens.
I'm not alone in this — Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, raised this point in the context of similar problems in Minneapolis: "In the case of guide dogs, the need to accommodate handicapped individuals should outweigh the discomfort Muslims might feel in having dogs in their vehicles." Gilmour will be giving part of his monetary settlement to the Az-zahraa Islamic Centre in Richmond because Imam Syed Jaffir helped him as an expert witness. I can't find any information on what Jaffir did, but I think it's reasonable to assume that he took a position similar to that of Hooper: Muslims may experience discomfort around dogs, but simply being near them during the course of a car ride isn't clearly forbidden in Islam.
If religious believers are allowed to refuse to treat others equally simply on the basis of experiencing discomfort that derives from their religious beliefs, and not because of any demands by their religion, there is no end to the mischief that would result. Why shouldn't Muslims be allowed to refuse rides to Jews and vice-versa? Why shouldn't devout Muslims and Jews inquire as to whether their female passengers are menstruating? How about Muslims and Jews refusing rides to someone eating a ham sandwich? What's the point of having equal protection laws if religious believers can use their religion as a reason to refuse to do anything that disturbs their comfort zone?
We should also not forget how much violence and suffering have been caused by the religious categories of "unclean" and "impure." That which is unclean is something which can or should be eliminated in the name of all that is holy. Women have suffered because they are regularly treated as "unclean" and thus unworthy of equality. Anyone born with a disability, or who was simply left-handed, might be treated as "unclean" and thus ostracized. Dividing people, animals, and the entire world into "clean" and "unclean" is perhaps the ultimate "us vs. them" division, allowing all manner of violence, killing, and suffering to be justified. It simply isn’t something that a secular, civil government should validate or recognize as part of civil laws.