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Cabbies, Dogs, and Ritual Purity
by R. John Matthies
First the good news: The sightless Bruce Gilmour (pictured here with his mangy coot of a Golden Retriever), denied service "a hundred times, maybe 150 times" by Muslim cab drivers since he acquired his first guide dog in 1984, was awarded $2,500 by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, in a settlement made public recently.
And the bad news: In spite of the recognition that the cabbies' conduct amounts to discrimination, the court reached a compromise settlement with North Shore Taxi. The agreement stipulates that drivers with an "honest religious [Muslim] belief which precludes them from transporting certified guide dogs" must now respond to service requests from the blind and their canine companions. But the settlement gives drivers the right to request dispatch operators to send "the next available cab." Drivers must also "provide the customer their name and wait with the customer until the next cab arrives." I certainly hope it's not raining.
Mr. Gilmour noted that the ruling is "not binding with any other cab company," and fears the consequences. But the National Post gushed, with no trace of irony, that the deal "balances rights and religion." Whose rights? Whose religion? Those of our dog-fearing cabbies, alas.
What is this cabdriver cynophobia? What accounts for this abnormal and persistent fear? This is no idle question, for Gilmour and many others will suffer as a result of the court's ruling that Muslims are within their rights to refuse them.
Cab drivers have argued that dogs are "unclean," but there is little agreement on the subject. In our own time, clerics like the Iranian Hojatolislam Hassani have denounced the "moral depravity" of dog ownership, and demanded "the judiciary arrest of all dogs with long, medium or short legs-together with their long-legged owners." And last September, Saudi religious police banned dogs from the holy city of Mecca and neighboring Jeddah. But these are exceptional cases.
Early chroniclers of the Prophet's life and mission report that dogs, while "unclean," are not entirely off limits. Dogs may be kept for hunting, shepherding, and protection, for example. And legal scholars disagree among themselves as to whether the dog is (1) entirely pure, (2) entirely impure, or (3) pure as to fur and impure of saliva.
Ritual purity is the rub. According to the "impure" tradition, contact with dog saliva will invalidate ritual purity and nullify ablutions ("breaks" wudu') required for prayer or handling the Muslim holy book. This applies to the saliva of every canine, mongrel and "certified guide dog" alike.
But what is the worst that can happen if car and driver become contaminated with dog saliva? The answer is that the soiled spot of the clothes or car must be cleansed in ritual fashion (seven times in all, and once with dirt), and the person must apply partial ablutions (wudu') to the face and extremities.
Still, I ask: So what? What's the harm in allowing Man's Best Friend into one's cab? Consider more serious wudu'-breakers: barehanded contact with one's genitals or a member of the opposite sex; profound sleep; sexual discharge; defecation; urination; and flatulence. Dog or no dog, any one of these will nullify one's ablution.
Bottom line: While it is entirely possible to avoid the animal (ask Mr. Gilmour), it is next to impossible to maintain a state of ritual purity. The "broken" wudu' of the driver is nearly a foregone conclusion-as would be the case for anyone. Soiled spots in one's cab must still be ritually cleansed, but if one must submit to ablutions anyway, what great sacrifice can it be?
Scrupulously observant drivers may take pride in their discipline; but respect for religion cannot and will never "balance" the right of the individual and his service animal to hail a taxicab. The "sin" is abandoning Bruce and his canine companion on the sidewalk.
"I'm humiliated and frustrated and it's an awkward position having to go into defending your rights because you're blind," Gilmour said. The court, in trying to be respectful of traditions they do not comprehend - and traditions for which there is no great agreement - has required persons like Bruce Gilmour to swallow the indignity of waiting beside a taxi chaperone while dispatch scrambles to find a less discriminating driver. The Vancouver solution is shameful and indulgent.
Mr. Gilmour must not be compelled to respect the tenets of another's faith. No one is bound to chauffeur the public for a living, and scrupulously observant drivers should not require a settlement or ruling to perform the function for which they were hired.
Besides, in Canada - as in Europe, Australia, and the United States - there are already legal requirements for hotels, restaurants, shops, supermarkets - and even cabdrivers-to respect guide dogs. It's something of a "tradition."