Their religion: More important than your customs?

IMAGINE facing a fine of thousands of pounds – simply because of not shaking hands with someone.

That is what happened in May of last year, when a school board decided that two Muslim boys, aged 14 and 15, who did not want to shake the hand of a female teacher due to their faith, must be forced to do so in the future.

If they did not comply, their family would be forced to pay fines equivalent of up to £3,400. One would, understandably, assume that the government overriding a person’s consent to be touched, particularly the consent of a child to be touched by an adult, is a type of corruption and behaviour that might be reserved for fascist governments in politically unstable countries.

However, this ruling occurred in Switzerland – a first-world country that claims to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, which states: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” There is no requirement that a person should have to disregard their faith for the sake of a gesture, which can easily be replaced by a wave, smile, or verbal greeting. 

 Switzerland’s public opinion was split about the decision and the school board maintained their position that it was a reasonable request. Deborah Murith, the spokesperson for the school board, stated that: “The public interest concerning the equality of men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the beliefs and religious freedoms of individuals.” This reveals a lack of understanding of Islam that is omnipresent in today’s society. The teachings of the Qur’an do not refer to gender in this case – the doctrines surrounding physical contact between unrelated men and women are not gender specific.  There is no evidence of an implication that any gender is superior to another. Murith claims that forcing people to go against their religion will ‘prevent isolation’.

Those more central to the suffering of Muslims in modern society (in light of recent terrorist attacks perpetuated by people claiming to be Muslims) have an alternative perspective. It creates spaces where people feel unsafe and unaccepted because of their religious beliefs. The very ruling made to prevent isolation is one which will instead perpetuate it. It is an axiomatic truth that, to create an inclusive and loving society, the Human Rights Declaration must be respected. 

The notion that refusing to partake in the Swiss tradition of shaking hands with a teacher is disrespectful is one which people are using to justify Islamophobia. In our multicultural and highly diverse world, there are billions of different types of people. Some are germophobes, some are arachnophobes, some are anxious, some are confident, some are Christian, and some are Muslims.

We are privileged in countries that value human rights, in that we are allowed to be who we want to be without being penalised. Equality is in accordance with individuality. It embraces our differences and doesn’t hold us to a higher or lower regard because of them. We are permitted to have bodily autonomy. If the situation saw a girl who had been sexually assaulted and was traumatised at the idea of having to touch anyone who she was not related to, or if it saw a boy with autism wish to not have his personal space invaded, there would not have been public outcry.

The right to defy societal norms, if doing so is in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, must not only be open to people who fit into the mould that many European countries champion – it must apply to asylum seekers, Jews, people who can’t speak English, Muslims, and every other marginalised group that feel forgotten or oppressed in our supposedly all-inclusive environment. 

To refuse to make any type of non-emergency or imperative physical contact with another person does not impede public safety or order, nor does it undermine the health, morals, or the rights and freedoms of other individuals. You are within your rights to offer your handshake or hug to a person, but they are not obligated to accept it. This is respected in all other circumstances – a woman at a bar is not obligated to take a drink bought for her by a man interested in her, and a man seen to be forcing this, on the grounds that he bought it for her for the sake of goodwill, would not be enabled. Society would not say that his desire to have his advanced approved of takes priority over her bodily autonomy. This would be regarded as oppression of women, and would be inexcusable.

Though the situation is different, the principles are the same. The violation initially described is an example of the xenophobia and Islamophobia that has become commonplace, even in places which condemn less socially and politically developed countries for oppressing women’s rights to walk around in a bikini in the streets, for example.  

Religious freedom does not equal radicalism. Isolation of innocent people wishing to live their lives according to the intrinsic rights that they have in ‘free’ countries is dangerous, and allows for minority groups to be further oppressed by both general society and governmental departments. Several examples of exclusivism have been demonstrated in Switzerland, such as the decision to make it illegal for minarets to be placed on mosques – in a country where minarets could be counted on one hand. The message of that decision rang loud and clear with the five per cent Muslim population in Switzerland: Islam is not welcome in this multi-cultural and religiously diverse country.

Forced compliance of factitious behavioural customs is culturally biased, not to mention highly elitist, and though this issue is hugely important, the overall implications of the decisions surrounding oppressing rights of people to express their religion how they choose is even more vital. Anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia are all forms of oppressing those who don’t follow the traditional Eurocentric ideal, and every form of this must be stopped for our society to develop past the damaging idea still rife in many governmental departments and first-world countries that white, straight, Christian men are the epitome of moral high ground and worthiness. How is it, that, years after the tragedy of the Holocaust, blatant acts against freedom of belief remain so socially acceptable? 


Comment piece by Ezgi Aldemir

BBC School Report