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"Airport's sinks to help Muslims carry out rituals"


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Airport's sinks to help Muslims carry out rituals
Wash basins will aid cab drivers who need to cleanse feet before prayers; critics say installation violates law
By Francesca Jarosz
The Indianapolis (IN) Star 
Three times a day during their shifts at the Indianapolis International Airport, more than 100 Muslim cab drivers wash their feet.


In the parking lot where they wait to be dispatched, some fill plastic bottles with water and pour it over the right foot, then the left. Others clean their feet in the restroom sink.
The practice is the last step in a ritual called ablution -- "wudu" in Arabic -- which involves washing several parts of the body to cleanse before Muslims' five daily prayers.
And by November 2008, when the new $1.07 billion airport terminal is scheduled to be complete, the restroom near the parking lot where taxi drivers stay between runs will include floor-level sinks that will make their daily ritual easier.
Such foot baths have started to crop up across the country, in schools such as the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where more than 10 percent of students are Muslims, and at airports such as Kansas City International Airport.
They have drawn the ire of bloggers and pundits, who say they violate the separation of church and state, and the praise of advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Airport officials say they saw a need for the sinks after employees reported that some of the drivers were washing their feet in hand sinks. They perceived that as a safety hazard.
"We recognize that the practice does go on," said Greta Hawvermale, senior director of engineering and environment for the Indianapolis Airport Authority. "We're looking at how it can be done in a safe way."
Specifics of the foot baths' size and design are not complete. At most, there would be one in the men's restroom and another in the women's.
An official cost estimate for the foot baths won't be ready until November, but Hawvermale said similar sinks cost between $400 and $600 to purchase and install.
The new airport terminal is funded primarily through general airline revenues. About 10 percent of funding, for devices such as safety and flight equipment, comes from federal grants.
But some critics say these foot baths are religious facilities in a public place -- and a clear constitutional violation.
Robert Spencer founded the group Jihad Watch, which aims to raise awareness of what its founders perceive as a proliferation of Islamic law into mainstream society. Spencer compares installing a foot bath in a restroom to putting in a holy water font to accommodate Catholic cab drivers.
"The only conceivable group that will use the foot bath are Muslims for prayer," Spencer said. "It's a religious installation for a religious use."
Airport officials say they see it differently.
"These facilities are for everybody's use," said David Dawson, spokesman for the new terminal project.
Muslims and their advocates find the facilities to be a practical need. The lone men's restroom in the parking area where cab drivers stay in between their drives has one sink. On busy afternoons, it's shared by up to 80 drivers who use the lot, and some of them find it gross to see people washing their feet in the sink, the cab drivers say.
Khalid Zouecha, 38, said he rinses his feet with a bottle of water outside the bathroom to avoid the stares of other drivers.
"Most of them look at you like, 'What are those guys doing?' " Zouecha said. "They know what we're doing, but they look at us like they're strange actions."
And some drivers say the water-bottle routine gets old, especially in the winter.
"It's like you are in the jungle, like a primitive human," said Aziz Nachid, 42.
Performing the ritual in these conditions doesn't interfere with its religious aspect, as long as the water is moving and all the body parts are cleaned in the correct order, said Michael Saahir, an imam at the Nur-Allah Islamic Center of Indianapolis.
But he said the drivers deserve better conditions, which the foot baths will provide.
"This is long overdue," Saahir said. "Indianapolis is coming of age. They need to have accommodations for all of their citizens."

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