In a different age, involving a different faith, this would be a curio about how different western values — religious tolerance and equality for women — can conflict. In this age, with this faith, amid a huge population transfer from the Middle East to Europe, it’s big news.
There has been little support for the school’s decision to grant special dispensation to the boys, who are 14 and 15 and have lived in Switzerland for several years.
Therwil Mayor Reto Wolf said the community was unhappy with the decision taken by the school, which is run by the local canton.
“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,” he told the BBC.
Felix Mueri, the head of the Swiss parliament’s education commission and a member of the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, said the decision sent out the wrong message. “Today’s it’s the handshake and what will it be tomorrow?”
It’s a Swiss custom to have a handshake between teacher and pupil before and after class. The two Muslim students objected on grounds that it’s against Islam to touch a woman who’s not a relative. So the school copped out, allowing the students to skip the handshake with female teachers provided that they skipped it with their male teachers too. That’s a classic western dodge, reminiscent of news outlets thinking twice about publishing images offensive to Christians now in order to appear “evenhanded” after they’ve censored images of Mohammed for fear of jihadis. In both cases, not only have you not addressed the underlying problem, you’ve flattered illiberalism by restricting even more behavior to accommodate it. I much prefer overt double standards to disingenuous evenhanded solutions like these because the double standard doesn’t paper over the serious cultural debate that lies beneath. Every time a paper mocks Jesus while censoring mockery of Mohammed, every time a Muslim student is permitted not to shake a woman’s “unclean” hand while forced to shake a man’s, it reminds all involved that multiculturalism requires special dispensation for some cultures’ illiberal customs. If you’re going to have that system, do it with your eyes open. Make people confront the implications.
Three wrinkles to this story. One: Interestingly, the local teachers’ union in Switzerland is firmly on the side of forcing the students to shake hands with women teachers in the name of gender equality. Am I selling American teachers’ unions short in thinking that their view of this would be more … nuanced? You don’t see left-wing power bases in the U.S. pounding the table against multiculturalism very often, especially when Islam is involved. Two: Not unexpectedly, Muslim activist groups disagree on whether touching a woman really is against Islam. The Swiss Federation of Islamic Organisations says nope; the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland says it is, noting that after the infamous New Year’s sex attacks in Cologne, Muslims have been told to stay away from European women. How can we rightly expect students to shake their female teachers’ hands then, they ask? Which, as far as stupid political trolling goes, is the equal of anything I’ve seen this year on Twitter. But never mind that. If the school has backing from a Muslim group for the proposition that refusing to touch a woman is a fundamentalist, not mainstream, Islamic point of view, why accommodate the kids? They’ve got political cover to make them shake hands.
Oh, and speaking of fundamentalism, the third wrinkle:
The two teenage boys were allowed to avoid greeting the teacher with a handshake at the school in Therwil, northern Switzerland, after saying it was against their Muslim faith to touch a woman outside their family.
The boys are brothers, aged 14 and 15, and one of them posted material on his Facebook page in support of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the Basler Zeitung online newspaper reported.
I doubt the school knew that before granting the kids an exception to the handshake. If you’re invested in multiculturalism, this is not the guy you want as your poster boy for accommodation.
Exit question for legal eagles: In the U.S,, this case is a slam dunk for the students under the Free Exercise Clause, right? Although, in the U.S., the thought of a daily handshake between teacher and students seems so quaint that it’s hard to imagine that fact pattern even hypothetically.