Swiss Muslims face fuss over school handshake

Swiss Muslims face fuss over school handshake

The mosque of the Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten. Source: Wikimedia

It is common for Swiss children to shake hands with their teacher at the beginning and end of each day and one school’s decision to exempt two children from this tradition, because they are Muslim and their teacher is female, has caused controversy.

The school in the town of Therwil, near Basel, asked for an exemption from the practice, claiming it contravened Islamic teaching. The district authorities ruled that the children, aged 14 and 15, would be exempt from the tradition all together.

The Schweiz am Sonntag reported on it, sparking a heated public debate. Switzerland’s Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, a former Swiss president, told Swiss TV: “There are always new issues when it comes to coexisting, but in this case it seems absolutely clear to me that it’s totally wrong for a child to refuse to shake their teacher’s hand. That doesn’t fall under the headline freedom of religion. On the contrary, I think it’s part our culture to shake hands.”

“Today’s it’s the handshake and what will it be tomorrow?” said Felix Mueri of the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party and head of the Switzerland’s parliamentary education commission. Switzerland’s teaching union and Therwil’s municipal council have also criticised the ruling although the school has defended the decision. “They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female,” headmaster Jurg Lauener told SRF. “For us, that addresses the question of discrimination.”

The situation is the latest controversy over the integration of Islam in Switzerland, where Muslims make up an estimated 5 per cent of the population. In 2009, voters banned the construction of minarets and in 2015 Ticino canton passed a law that made wearing a burqa in public punishable with a US$10,000 fine.

Muslim representatives suggested the boys were misinterpreting Islamic laws with their refusal to shake the hands of their teachers. “[To] the students and parents I would suggest to the following reflection: can the denial of shaking hands be more important than the Islamic commandment of mutual respect?” asked Dr Montassar Ben Mrad, president of Federation of Islamic Organisations.

However, another group suggested that the backlash against the boys was overblown. The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland suggested the media storm was rather exaggerated. It announced: “One would think that the continued existence of Switzerland’s core values was at stake, when this particular case in fact involves just two high school students who have said they wish to greet their teacher in a different way than with a handshake.”

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