Prayer and Silence in Grand Islandby Ryan Anderson
Tension came to a head at a Grand Island meatpacking plant in June, when Jama Mohamed said his desire for 10 minutes to pray at sunset was met with shouting.
After he left the production line and began praying, Mohamed said, supervisors took his prayer mat, pulled him up by his collar and sent him crying to a lead supervisor, who fired him.The cliche, in this situation, would be to exclaim: "if only this were happening to Christian employees, there would be an outraged outcry in this nation!" As with all cliches, such rhetoric has little power to persuade... it's a dog whistle, heard only by those who want to hear it.
"I told him, 'Look, I know I am in America and I know in America there is a freedom of religion for everybody to practice their religion. . . . And as long as you fulfill that — as long as you let me pray — I will always work for you,'" Mohamed, 28, said last week through an interpreter. "And he said, 'No, that's not acceptable — your prayers are not acceptable here. You're here to work, not pray.'"
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has drafted a complaint to federal officials that is awaiting the signatures of dozens of Muslim Somali workers who say they were fired or harassed by supervisors at a Grand Island meatpacking plant for trying to pray at sunset.
[Mohammad] Rage [of the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization] said at least two dozen workers have been fired since May by Swift for praying. Swift disputes that number.
[Donald] Selzer [Swift attorney] said three Somali workers were fired for walking off the line without permission, not for praying. "These people are absolutely entitled to pray, and they should not be interfered with for doing so," Selzer said. "The only situations that I've been made aware of are people that walk off the job without permission, and that's a different kind of an issue."
Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said he sees regular lists of those fired from the plant. Nothing in those lists raised his suspicions, he said, but he said the plant — which employs about 3,000 people in all and about 150 Somalis — generally has high turnover.
Hoppes said prayer breaks are not part of the contract, but he said he plans to revisit the issue with plant officials when the contract is renegotiated in 2010.
Rima Kapitan, a Chicago-based staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Swift has been "unwilling to work with us to create a solution where the workers can pray."
Kapitan said Swift rejected her group's suggestion to allow the Somalis who work evenings to leave in small shifts to avoid disrupting lines. The prayer must be done within a 45-minute window surrounding sunset, according to Muslim prayer rules.
Selzer and Hoppes said the company suggested phasing evening workers to shifts earlier in the day that don't interrupt prayer times. "We're perfectly happy to try to pursue that angle so that we don't have this conflict," Selzer said, but noted many people prefer the second shift.
Somali workers also complain that other workers are granted bathroom or smoking breaks and say prayer time should be granted in the same way.
Mohamed said it is important for Muslims to pray within scheduled times and not to postpone prayers or say them early. "I would never forgive myself and God would not forgive me if I do not pray on time because I want to earn some money," he said.
But it's true, damn it. The mainstream media and the public at large wouldn't accept such actions against Christianity because such actions are unacceptable. Not because Christians have or demand special protection, but because all people of all faiths demand and deserve respect. As well they should.
Respect is a basic human right, one guarded not by the government but by the community. Our community. You and me. If we don't provide it, if we don't protect it, then we don't deserve it.
We've been derelict in that duty, and (for now) the Muslim community is paying our penalty. It's certainly disappointing to see the union official comfortably waiting until 2010 to seek such basic and fundamental reform. It's even more disappointing to see the Swift company refuse to engage with CAIR on a compromise that might serve the interests of all.
But what would be absolutely devastating is if this story were to fall through the cracks; never to be heard and never to be resolved. It does us no good to pretend this is simply a Muslim problem: it isn't. It's a worker's rights problem, it's a problem of religious freedom... it's our problem. We own it. And we will be shaped by how we act -or fail to act- in response.