The tradition of shaking a teacher’s hand at the beginning and end of each lesson is a long-standing one in the classroom in Switzerland. But it has now sparked a broader narrative on the country’s identity.
Last month, two Syrian boys in the town of Therwil were exempted from shaking their female teachers’ hands. The teenagers had argued that it was against their faith to do so, and the school viewed the exemption as a compromise.
The case sparked a national debate once it was picked up by local media, with local authorities, politicians, teaching unions, and the Swiss Federation of Islamic Organizations speaking out against the move. The family of the two boys had their citizenship proceedings halted as a result of the incident.
“We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom,” Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga told a Swiss-German broadcaster. “The handshake is part of our culture.”
Muslim students in Switzerland have now been ordered to shake their teachers’ hands. If they refuse to do so, their parents could face a fine of up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,000).
Therwil’s local education authority said (link in German): “The public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.” According to the BBC, the school in question was “relieved” by the decision.
According to Swiss media (link in German), the boys said that politicians were using them to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment, and that “complete strangers” were threatening them.
Balancing respect for religious freedom with the integration of minority communities has not always gone smoothly in many European countries. In 2013, a German court ruled that, despite her parents’ wishes, a Muslim schoolgirl in Frankfurt had to take part in mixed-sex swimming lessons. Earlier this year, Danish politicians insisted that making pork mandatory in schools in the city of Randers wasn’t about the “harassment of Muslims.”
Meanwhile, a Muslim student last year in France was banned from school for wearing a long black skirt that, according to the school principal, “conspicuously” showed religious affiliation. (The full veil known as the niqab is banned in France.) In summer of 2015, a school in London banned children from fasting during Ramadan, arguing that there had been a “number of children who became ill and fainted” as a result.
In 2013, there was a minor kerfuffle when Michelle Obama shook the hand of the Saudi king when the president visited the conservative Islamic nation.