What could be more innocuous than a handshake? Not a special handshake, but a conventional handshake where the only contact is between the two hands. Well, using the pretext of being anti-Islamic, two Muslim brothers have objected to shaking the hand of their female teacher.
This has resulted in numerous educational department rulings & reversals as this issue wends its way through officialdom and ultimately the Courts in Switzerland.
Main picture: No handshake exemption for Muslim pupils, Swiss canton rules
Apparently in Switzerland it has long been customary for students to shake the hands of their teachers at the beginning and end of the school day. It is a sign of solidarity and mutual respect between teacher and pupil, one that is thought to encourage the right classroom atmosphere.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga recently felt compelled to further explain that shaking hands was part of Swiss culture and daily life.
The reason she felt compelled to speak out about the handshake is that two Muslim brothers, aged 14 and 15, who have lived in Switzerland for several years (and thus are familiar with its mores), in the town of Therwil, near Basel, refused to shake the hands of their teacher, a woman. The reason they claimed, this would violate Muslim teachings that contact with the opposite sex is allowed only with family members.
At first the school authorities decided to avoid trouble, and initially granted the boys an exemption from having to shake the hand of any female teacher. But an uproar followed, as Mayor Reto Wolf explained to the BBC: “The community was unhappy with the decision taken by the school. In our culture and in our way of communication, a handshake is normal and sends out respect for the other person, and this has to be brought home to the children in school.”
Therwil’s Educational Department reversed the school’s decision, explaining in a statement on May 25 that the school’s exemption was lifted because “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.” It added that a teacher has the right to demand a handshake.
Furthermore, if the students refused to shake hands again, “the sanctions called for by law will be applied,” which included a possible fine of up to 5,000 dollars.
This uproar in Switzerland, where many people were enraged at the original exemption granted to the Muslim boys, did not end after that exemption was itself overturned by the local Educational Department.
Naturally, once the exemption was withdrawn, all hell broke loose among Muslims in Switzerland. The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland, instead of yielding quietly to the Swiss decision to uphold the handshaking custom, criticized the ruling in hysterical terms, claiming that the enforcement of the handshaking is “totalitarian” because its intent is to “forbid religious people from meeting their obligations to God.” That, of course, was never the “intent” of the long-standing handshaking custom, which was a nearly-universal custom in Switzerland, and in schools had to do only with encouraging the right classroom atmosphere of mutual respect between instructor and pupil, of which the handshake was one aspect.
The Swiss formulation of the problem – weighing competing claims — will be familiar to those versed in Constitutional adjudication. In this case, “the public interest with respect to equality” of the sexes and the “integration of foreigners” (who are expected to adopt Swiss ways, not force the Swiss to exempt them from some of those ways) were weighed against the “religious obligations to God” of Muslims, and the former interests found to outweigh the latter.