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Fallout over airport prayer space exposes deep tensions

Published February 23, 2008 12:26 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Pete Dixon's job changed. The then-new airport express shuttle driver said he found himself, with other Christians, standing as a human wall between praying Muslim cabbies and the traffic that sped by them.

Between the racial slurs and thrown bottles, it was the least Dixon, now 63, could do for his new friends, who as Muslims pray five times a day.

"They need to get back inside," he recently called out from his van, where take-out Somali food sat beside him. "This [building] has been a model of good relations, and that's been spoiled."

The building Dixon spoke of is the modest brick one beside the lot where, until earlier this week, taxi and shuttle drivers queued up before making airport pick-ups. The doors to the then-vacant building opened in 2001, offering refuge for drivers who, on slow days, might wait several hours before being dispatched. Inside were a restroom and a break room, vending machines, a television and a microwave. There also was the small area deemed a "quiet room," where drivers, presumably of all faiths and backgrounds, could offer prayers, meditate, take naps or simply sit in silence, away from public taunts.

But fallout over this room, in fact the whole building, has been anything but quiet. One man filed a complaint in October with a federal agency, and last month he was charged with assaulting a Muslim taxi driver. On Jan. 18, amid the growing tensions, the Salt Lake City International Airport closed the small building permanently to drivers.

Man with a mission

To hear Jeffrey Brueningsen tell it, he's a modern-day Rosa Parks. He likens himself to the civil-rights legend when he speaks of the charge he led to shut down "the mosque," which is how he refers to the building. The 53-year-old Park City shuttle driver says he was victimized - by, he contends, Muslim drivers who accosted him and by airport officials who ignored him - and even goes so far as to suggest that he risked his life in the interest of national security and constitutional law.

He doesn't hide his disdain for what he saw around him, beyond the prayers. He speaks of the wet stall walls in the bathroom, the way men blew their noses using water, saying it was "obvious to me that they wanted to make it . . . gross and uninviting."

They changed television stations without checking first with other viewers, left outside doors propped open, sometimes turned off the air conditioning and the lights. Never mind that many of these men were recent immigrants from African nations. These were actions Brueningsen describes as "aggressively militant."

He tried to tip off government officials to what he viewed as potential terrorists in his midst.

But it was the praying - the shoes they took off, the prayer rugs strewn about, the copies of the Quran - that fired him up and got him the most traction.

"I almost quit last summer because I didn't want to live and work under Shariah [Islamic] law . . . sponsored by the airport," he says.

But he didn't quit, nor did he stop going into the facility his job never required he enter.

He demanded tables and chairs be placed in the small "quiet room," where Muslims had grown accustomed to floor space for their rugs. He stationed himself in that room, shoes always on, to exert his rights. He videotaped men during their holiest moments. And he began to call media to share his outrage about religious practices in a public building.

Days after Salt Lake Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh wrote about her own constitutional concerns, he filed a formal complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration. Walsh, whom he quoted and continues to quote in conversations, called the building a "government-sanctioned Islamic center." Her attention to the issue seemingly emboldened him.

In his handwritten complaint, he wrote: "Islamists are required to wage cultural jihad and they seem to be engaging in 'sharia [sic] by the inch' here."

He says his actions came with a price. He says he was bullied and called a racist.

The Associated Press once photographed Brueningsen protesting with the Utah Minuteman Project - deemed a "nativist extremist" organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights agency. He's not a member of the project but aligned with them in May 2006 during then-Mexican President Vincente Fox's Utah visit. He also alleges Muslims told one driver, whom he won't identify, they would slit his throat.

Asked if he really thought his life was in danger, he doesn't hesitate to say: "Did you ever see the Nick Berg video? The beheading video?" referencing the American businessman abducted in Iraq and decapitated in a May 2004 video. "That's what they do to people."

Not as intended

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The airport, which does not employ taxi and shuttle drivers, had no obligation to provide a facility to drivers and opened the vacant building's doors as a courtesy, spokeswoman Barbara Gann says. The stories of Muslim drivers being threatened as they prayed on a grassy roadside strip got to her and others.

"It's hard not to humanly respond to that," she says.

But that wasn't the impetus to open the building; the timing just happened to be right. The airport roads had been redesigned, the staging area for taxis and shuttles was established, and the empty facility was sitting there.

"We never intended this to be a prayer room, nor did we create it as that," she says, pointing to the former "quiet room."

"But, in fact, that's what it became."

The mere notion of such a room, as she now knows too well, is fraught with challenges. The airport is a department of Salt Lake City Corp., though it is not funded by local tax dollars, she explains. It is mostly supported by tenants and money made from airlines, she says, but it does receive some federal funding. So constitutionally the airport hoped to find a balance between allowing people to exercise their rights of expression while not promoting religion of any sort. By virtue of the numbers - the vast majority of cab drivers are Muslim - and the daily prayer expectations in Islam, what resulted didn't match the airport's intentions.

"This was a space that could be used by the people out there for whatever relaxing purpose they chose," explains Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan. "But the way in which a number of people were conducting themselves in the facility raised the concern that it had in effect been converted to religious use, and the airport just can't allow that to happen."

Brueningsen wasn't the only one who complained over the years, although he was the only one to do so formally, but Gann says the airport was generally able to address people's issues. For example, when some cabbies complained about Muslim drivers washing their feet in the bathroom, the airport opened a janitor's closet so the mop sink could be used for ritual washing. The airport spoke to the taxi company owners, telling them to convey messages of concern. But between degrees of separation, language and cultural barriers, it's hard to know what every Muslim driver understood.

And, Gann adds, no one other than Brueningsen ever complained about feeling physically threatened. On top of the alleged death threat, he spoke of being stared at, surrounded, pushed and robbed.

"His allegations were never founded," she says of the multiple internal investigations, but the confrontations involving him continued and "ultimately resulted in the arrest for assault."

The last confrontation

Mohaned Al-Ahmed, 39, steps out of his taxi to recount the memory. It was Jan. 17; he was eating lunch in the break room when he saw Brueningsen dragging furniture toward the "quiet room" next door, where men were conducting their three- to four-minute prayers. Al-Ahmed says he asked Brueningsen if he worked for the airport and was told he did. He then says he overheard arguing and noticed Brueningsen blocking entry to the room where another driver wanted to pray.

"This guy just wants to pray. Why are you blocking this room?" Al-Ahmed remembers asking.

He says Brueningsen told him praying wasn't allowed. When Al-Ahmed questioned this and said Brueningsen was welcome to pray, too, he says the shuttle driver "grabbed my shirt and hit me in the face" with a hand that was holding a dispatch radio before he darted out the door to his van.

According to the police report, witnesses backed Al-Ahmed, as did the fresh abrasion on his face. Others, who were outside, reported seeing Brueningsen leave the building yelling an obscenity directed at Muslims. Brueningsen, after he was ordered back to the building, argued with and refused to comply with officers. He maintained he was the victim, even reportedly compared his plight to that of a "rape victim," before he was arrested and charged with battery and obstruction of justice. He denies the allegations against him.

"These guys [police] are going to believe someone from the streets of Mogadishu and [people who] are allowed to lie according to their religion?" he wonders out loud.

His employer says he initially asked Brueningsen, in December after a separate confrontation, to stay away from the building. The airport decided to banish him from its grounds, a prohibition that was lifted - with strict conditions - on Monday, when separate staging areas of taxis and shuttles went into effect.

The whole situation befuddles Clancy Prescott, 60, a Marine veteran who's driven a cab for nearly 20 years and is called "Grandpa" by a group of young Somali drivers who hang out and share food with him.

"Other than this guy, I don't know anyone else who's complained," he says. "Why should he care if they pray or not? It don't bother me."

The shuttle driver's antics don't surprise Thomas Howard, a Park City attorney who represented one of Brueningsen's former employers starting in 2002. He recalls the incessant harassment of his client, which required the lawyer to file for a restraining order.

"The guy's an absolute troublemaker, in my opinion," Howard says.

Seeking peace

Recent weeks have seen a barrage of meetings and searches for solutions. Airport and city officials have met with leaders in the Muslim community and consulted with attorneys. Surveys of other airports have been conducted to see how similar challenges have been met.

The FAA has closed Brueningsen's complaint, now that the building has been shut down, though he continues to seek help for his allegations of retaliation by the airport. He's scheduled to appear in court in April and believes he's got a winning case.

The now-separate staging areas for shuttle drivers and cabbies won't have break rooms, and nothing resembling a "quiet room." That space, where drivers can pray, is and will remain outdoors.

This saddens Tarek Nosseir of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, who says he's used "quiet spaces" inside some of the country's largest airports. If he can use them as a passenger, shouldn't drivers serving passengers be entitled to the same?

The difference, explains Rutan, is that nondenominational chapels in airports are leased to a third party. If a third party wanted to lease a space for drivers, such a facility would be cleared for takeoff. Meantime, port-o-potties with little sinks are the best Muslim drivers, all drivers, can expect.

This is the "inconvenient truth" Imam Shuaib-ud Din of the Utah Islamic Center accepts.

"From a religious point of view, there's a saying of the prophet: 'The whole Earth has been made a place of prayer for me,' " he says. "Nothing says it has to be an enclosed and heated space."

This building "was a privilege," he continues. "It was good while it lasted."

JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at jravitz@sltrib.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at religioneditor@sltrib.com.






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