Hate frustrating commutes? Be grateful you were not on the No. 81 bus last Thursday in Langley, Berkshire — several miles northwest of Heathrow Airport:
A Muslim bus driver told stunned passengers to get off so he could pray.
The white Islamic convert rolled out his prayer mat in the aisle and knelt on the floor facing Mecca.
Passengers watched in amazement as he held out his palms towards the sky, bowed his head, and began to chant.
Several minutes later, the man rose and invited everyone back onboard. There were no takers.
The London United bus company is investigating the incident, which was captured on video. Meanwhile, Hrun the bus driver has explained himself to the Sun: "I asked everyone to get off because I needed to pray. I was running late and had not had time."
Though obviously a bizarre case, the impromptu prayer session nevertheless sheds light on the broader issue of religious accommodation. At what point do the demands of a minority conflict with the well-being of the whole? Hrun's actions provide the answer: when they grossly inconvenience others.
We may look to Australia for an example of how to respond to these challenges. International Muslim students recently petitioned universities in Melbourne to reschedule lectures around Islamic prayer times. They also asked that gender-segregated facilities be made available for eating and recreation. One school decided to take a stand:
La Trobe University International College director Martin Van Run said that although it was involved in discussions with the Muslim students who had made the requests, the university was not planning to change any timetables.
"That would seriously inconvenience other people at the college and it is not institutionally viable," he told the Australian. "We are a secular institution ... and we need to have a structured timetable."
If only Harvard administrators could exhibit such clarity.
Now officials at London United find themselves in the spotlight. Theirs is a tailor-made opportunity to affirm Western values — assuming they don't miss the bus.
April 16, 2008 update: When we first met Hrun, the pious driver working a bus route northwest of Heathrow, he was telling passengers to get off so he could pray. The London United bus company has now defended its employee, claiming that he was actually on his allotted break. Their investigation also asserts that since his bus was delayed and the next one had already caught up, the controller decided to terminate Hrun's bus at Langley and transfer the passengers. Just one problem: this story contradicts the reports of those onboard; they heard nothing about a break and found no bus waiting for them.