All pupils must shake teachers’ hands in Basel

Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga at the traditional New Year's reception of the diplomatic corps. Basel's education body says shaking hands is important for one’s future career Keystone

Students in canton Basel Country can no longer refuse to shake a teacher’s hand on religious grounds, according to the cantonal body for education, culture and sport. If they do, they could face a fine of up to CHF5,000 ($5,050). 

This content was published on May 25, 2016 and agencies, and agencies

The case of two teenage Muslim brothers at a school in Therwil who refused to shake the hand of their teacher before and after class – a common practice in Swiss schools – generated headlines around the world at the beginning of April. 

The education body said on Wednesday that a legal enquiry had confirmed that, despite freedom of religion, schools in Basel could make pupils shake teachers’ hands. 

The temporary decision exempting the two brothers from shaking hands would now be lifted, it added. 

It acknowledged that forcing pupils to shake hands represented an intrusion into religious freedom, but since this did not involve the central tenets of Islam, this intrusion was proportionate, it judged. 

The committee said the public interest outweighed “considerably” the private interests of the pupils. 

This public interest included equal treatment of men and women, the integration of foreigners and a well-organised school system. In addition, shaking hands was an important social gesture for one’s future career, it concluded in a statement. 

When the news first became public, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland said a handshake between a man and woman was “permissible theologically”. It added that politeness is important in Islamic tradition and that a handshake between teachers and students is “not problematic”. 

The cantonal body said pupils who continue to refuse to shake hands could be warned and then fined, in addition to facing “appropriate” disciplinary measures. 

The Central Islamic Council of Switzerland, which often assumes more radical positions, accused the authorities of "grossly overstepping their competency," saying such measures won't help integration but rather contribute to a feeling of alienation among Muslims. The council said it would take legal action against any effort to apply the sanctions, and ignore any fines.

Controversial compromise 

The school district in question originally defended its decision to grant the brothers an exemption, saying a compromise had been reached in that they did not have to shake the hands of male teachers either. 

But the case of the 14- and 16-year-old Muslim brothers led to a public outcry. Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga publicly criticised the decision to exempt the boys from shaking teachers' hands, arguing that the handshakes are part of Swiss culture. 

The younger of the two boys said in a newspaper interview that he had discovered the rule in an internet sermon. 

However, the Swiss teachers’ union did not agree with the school's initial decision. “The same rules should apply to all students,” argued union president Beat Zemp. He said the wrong signal was being sent to the students involved since they would need to shake hands with many peers and colleagues in their future lives, both male and female.  

It was later reported that the family of the two teenagers had had their application for citizenship suspended. A spokesperson for the local security authorities said that the office for migration in canton Basel Country would be speaking to family members individually, and that it was not unusual for an application to be suspended while additional information was gathered.

What do you think? If children object to shaking their teacher's hand on religious grounds, is it right for the canton to make them?

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