A small town in northwestern Switzerland was catapulted into the international headlines this week,1 following a local row over handshakes. It’s hard to imagine a seemingly minor social ritual that is equal parts benign and banal being the subject of contention, and yet, here we are.
It should be noted that, in terms of Swiss customs, handshakes are as much a part of the sociocultural scenery as punctuality, or as public transport that runs like clockwork. Having been educated partly in the Swiss system, I can attest to the pervasive importance, as a social lubricant, of the handshake. From primary school, children are taught, in no uncertain terms that This. Is. How. You. Greet. People. To not partake of this formality would be akin to social seppuku, to have chosen one’s place among a pariah demographic. In Switzerland, this is fine; we’ll tax you, regardless. But I digress.
Back to the handshakes, two local teenagers of a Muslim persuasion had complained to their secondary school that it was ‘against their faith to touch a woman outside their family’. The school board elected to accommodate the youths, and dispensed them from greeting or bidding farewell to their female teachers in the time-honoured Swiss way.
Cue various shades of indignation from educators and politicians, with the far right Swiss People’s Party offering some typically fallacious titbits. ‘Today it’s the handshake, and what will it be tomorrow?’ they say, in characteristically slippery slope fashion. Today, two teenagers are not required to shake hands with their female teachers. Tomorrow, it’ll be compulsory burkas for the entire Swiss female population.
Maintaining that handshakes between men and women are prohibited in Islam, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland issued the equally unhelpful statement that ‘[a]fter the sex attacks in Cologne [on New Year’s Eve], they asked Muslims to keep their distance from women; now they demand they get closer to them’. This analogy naturally makes perfect sense, because Cologne is a rural village of 10,000 inhabitants,2 teenage boys are rapists, and a handshake is a sexual aggression.
To this, I would say first of all that it is not a national debate. One swallow doth not a summer make. The story was picked up by local media, and somehow made it to international media; but this remains an incident centred around a village so small that virtually no one, barring its own inhabitants and those of the neighbouring hamlets, had ever heard of it prior to its new-found media notoriety. Also known as ‘a storm in a teacup’.
Secondly, of course, the far right party seized on this story as an opportunity to stir up xenophobic sentiment that is very much a minority view in Switzerland, at least for the time being. ‘Today it’s the handshake, and what will it be tomorrow?’ they ask. Well, nothing. Because the visceral Islamophobia you’re addressing is virtually as nonexistent as the nightmare scenario you’re evoking. But your scare tactics are duly noted.
Nonetheless, the incident burgeoned to the extent that Saida Keller-Messahli, of the Forum for Progressive Islam, managed to urge the Swiss ‘not to give in to extremist demands’ – because of course, not shaking someone’s hand is tantamount to being an extremist.
It should be noted that, according to the Swiss Federation of Islamic Organisations, there is ‘no reference in the Koran justifying a refusal to shake a woman teacher’s hand’, so the teenagers’ complaint seems spurious, and it would have been interesting to interview the parents, to perhaps learn whether they were even aware of their sons’ protestations, and if they were and supported those protestations, from where they derived an interpretation that has no basis in Islamic scripture.
In an effort to mollify the critics, the school board decided that the teenagers be exempted from shaking hands with teachers of either sex, bending over backwards so far that one could fairly hear the vertebrae of common sense cracking under the strain. At the risk of flirting with another slippery slope argument, this blogger contends that it is a nonsense to set a precedent for pandering to individual whims that are themselves nonsensical. Schools are a place for educating our young, and if anything, this story describes a lost opportunity of doing just that.