When religion and work are at odds

MuslimveilsReporter Chris Serres of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had an interesting, if evergreen, topic for a recent story. Using a recent hook, he wrote about the clashes that come from efforts to assimilate immigrants in the work place. The reader who sent the piece in saw it in the Contra Costa Times. It was significantly edited down from the original, and I'm not sure all of the edits were wise. It's a good reminder that many people are involved in getting a story to print. Anyway, here's how Serres begins:

Fatuma Hassan has just enough rice in her near-empty cupboards to make it through the month. The anger she felt when she lost her job in May has given way to a dull, nagging hunger.

Yet this soft-spoken 22-year-old became an unlikely hero within the Somali community when she and five of her Muslim co-workers were dismissed last month from the Mission Foods tortilla factory in New Brighton for refusing to wear a new company uniform -- a shirt and pants -- they consider a violation of their Islamic beliefs.

"For me, wearing pants is the same as being naked," Hassan said, noting the prophet Mohammed taught that men and women should not dress alike. "My culture, my religious beliefs, are more important than a uniform."

I love the anecdotal lede but it's perhaps a bit heavy on the guilt. Still, it's clearly a great hook to explore all of the problems countries and their immigrants face. The only problem is that the story doesn't really do that in a way that advances the discussion. We get these nut graphs that tell us what the story is all about . . . :

Their insistence on maintaining Muslim traditions, including prayer times and modest clothing, have led to firings at several manufacturers across the state and a sharp increase in religious discrimination complaints.

The well-publicized clashes also have sparked legal and ethical debates on whether efficiency-hungry workplaces are doing enough or defiant workers are accommodating too little.

. . . but then there is no discussion of what efforts the parties have made to accommodate each other, if any. And despite being told that these clashes are sparking debate about accommodation, the story provides little evidence of that. This is a very real conflict that puts all individuals involved in tough situations. Presumably the employers are required to follow federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, for instance. We don't hear from them about whether their dress code was related to such regulations or not. We don't hear if they tried to accommodate the employees. We don't hear about the Somalis trying to work with their employers, either.

The reporter compares the Somali experience to that of Orthodox Jews, nothing that they both have distinctive food taboos, clothing and their own religious schedule. Sometimes Serres makes the case that the problem is religious bias, sometimes it's cultural, sometimes it's economic and then it becomes racial:

"We have a saying in Somalia that 'he who approaches the lion does not know what a lion is,'" said Abdi Sheikhosman, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Minnesota. "Many Somalis arrive here not knowing the history of racial divide in this country. They don't know the lion they are up against."

The quote is dropped in without any response or context and seems to only confuse matters, particularly since no one raised the racial issue in their discrimination complaints. Presumably, though, cultural, religious, economic and other factors collide to cause these problems. It's great that Serres doesn't try to force one explanation if the facts on the ground suggest a more complex situation.

Another aspect to the story I liked was that it permitted conflicting analysis. Here, for instance, the Islamic law professor argues that Somalis feel their freedom is being violated:

Many Somalis come from tribes that move with their herds every six months in a constant search for safe grazing land, Sheikhosman said. Many of these nomads are fiercely independent and equate freedom with being left alone, he said.

Sheikhosman said that each time he returns to Somalia to visit his relatives, he is struck by "the general chaos of the place," he said. At a Somali airport counter, he said, the only way to be served is to yell and push one's way through a crowd.

"Imagine that a person comes coming from that environment is suddenly subjected to all these regulations and rules" in the workplace, he said. "He may think these are an intrusion to the freedom that he had at home. He's not afraid to take a stand."

The story ends, however, with opposing anecdotal evidence. An owner of a building maintenance company describes some of the problems that have arisen from hiring Somalis and how they were easily resolved. The anecdote also demonstrates that whatever may have happened in the factory example, Minnesotan employers have experience accommodating Muslim employees.

It's a great idea for a topic. However, I wish Serres had provided a bit more critical context about the situation. An expert in religious accommodation by private employers was desperately needed, for instance. A look at how other religious disputes in the workplace have been settled would also have been nice. I kept hoping to read something from a Muslim scholar who can explain Muslim views on dress in greater detail. And I even think it would have been helpful to have some quotes from people who felt that the Somalis were being unreasonable. The story included many quotes arguing against the employers, which is fine. But for a story that is not cut and dry, it would be nice to see a bit of a response to some of the arguments advanced by the Somalis and their defenders.

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