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Hugh Fitzgerald: The Handshake War in Sweden

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In Sweden, the Handshake Wars continue. A Muslim woman teacher recently refused to shake the hand of the father of one of her students. He complained. The school authorities backed her up:

Despite having been effectively settled amicably without any consequences for either party, the dispute, which is far from the first of its kind, has nevertheless sparked a social media debate.

A female Muslim teacher refused to greet a Swedish father by shaking his hand at a parent-teacher meeting. According to the father, the lady referred to her religion, an argument he subsequently questioned in a letter to the principal, the news outlet Nyheter Idag reported.

According to the father, the Muslim teacher greeted his wife, but refused to shake hands with him due on [to] religious grounds.

“I was completely dumbstruck. I thought this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Sweden at a school which should be free from religion. I feel offended by her response. How can I trust her to be correct when she teaches my child at school?” the indignant dad wrote.

The principal later explained to the local newspaper Värnamo Nyheter that the teacher felt “saddened” by the father taking offense at her refusal to shake hands. According to the principal, the woman explained that she never meant to offend him and was simply following the demands of her religion, where skin contact between men and women outside wedlock is not permitted.

According to the principal, the father was perfectly happy with the conversation. By his own admission, he was most concerned that the same differential treatment was being given to the pupils. However, the teacher assured him that it was perfectly okay to take boys by the hand, because children are not affected by these rules.

The school’s principal has stated that an ultimatum to force the lady to comply with Swedish rules has not even been considered. Consequently, no investigation will be conducted into the matter. The administrator also added that her main task was seeing that pupils get a decent education and ensuring good cooperation with parents. While claiming that the problem of handshakes was not on her agenda as a principal, she nevertheless admitted that she would welcome a common municipal policy on greetings.

Despite all seemingly “ending well,” the incident sparked a hot debate on the freedom of religion in social media, with some Swedes interpreting the incident as a token of “Islamization.”

“Freedom of religion is only heading in one direction. You Christians behave yourselves and shut up. Even the Swedish Church and the Archbishop support this thesis,” user Ulla Alstermo wrote on Nyheter Idag’s Facebook page.

If you cannot keep your religion to yourself, you shouldn’t work in a municipal school, she’d be better off looking for a job in a Muslim preschool. Municipal schools should be free from religion and politics,” another user chipped in.

Yet another user ventured that he would stop greeting Muslims altogether to see what would happen.

In Sweden there has been a growing number of similar rows over handshaking in recent years, involving both Muslim men and women refusing follow the Western practice of shaking hands due to the prescriptions of Islam. The most high-profile case, however, involves former senior Green Party member Yasri Khan, who had to step down following the outcry caused by his refusal to shake hands with a female reporter.

When a public school in Sweden yields to a Muslim teacher who, following Islamic rules preventing physical contact between unrelated men and women, refuses to shake a parent’s hand, does it matter? Is it silly and self-defeating to make a fuss over something so minor? Clearly the Swedish authorities in this case thought so. But there is no real difference between this case and that of Yasri Khan, a Green Party member whose refusal to shake hands with a female reporter caused such an outcry that he was forced to step down from his position in the party. It was understood in that case that the handshake embodied a less rigid view of relations between the sexes, and of absolute gender equality, and that in Sweden it was impermissible for others to substitute their own, Islam-prompted view, if they wished to be considered Swedes. Why should a public school appear to endorse, by failing to require both women and men to shake hands with parents  of the opposite sex, as a sign of simple respect, or even of social solidarity, the Muslim view of relations between the sexes?

When a non-Muslim country and its people find that little by little, they are being pushed to accept Muslim practices, or to end their own practices because they might offend Muslims, and do not resist, they are collaborating in the transformation of their own country. If schools can no longer serve pork for school lunches, even if there are alternatives on offer, if Christmas carols are banned, or Christmas trees no longer erected in city squares, for they might offend Muslims, if in public schools prayer rooms are set aside for Muslim students who will need to excuse themselves from class, or if in workplaces Muslim workers are similarly allowed to break up their work day, for the sake of the five daily prayers, if Muslim women can defy state regulations by wearing burkinis, these are all symptoms of the same disease: that of Europe’s steady yielding to, and accommodation, of Islamic values, customs, and laws.

There have been other cases in Sweden involving such handshakes. In 2016, a practicing Muslim who worked for the Helsingborg municipality in southern Sweden refused to shake the hand of any women workers, although he was happy to shake the hands of male colleagues.

But council bosses said his stance was incompatible with their equality policy, and said he could no longer work there.

“We are in favour of diversity. People can believe what they like, but that doesn’t mean that they can discriminate. We will stand up for values like equality,” Liberal councillor Maria Winberg told The Local.

In yet another case in Sweden, Fardous El-Sakka, a Muslim woman working as a supply teacher refused to shake the hand of a male colleague, who felt “tremendously discriminated against.” Told by the principal that she must shake hands with men as well as women, the Muslim teacher chose to resign.

In another Swedish case, a civilian border guard, a Muslim, refused to shake hands with any of his female colleagues, who felt discriminated against. A police spokesman, Ewa-Gun Westford, noted that “the question as such probably lives on for many, because it’s a very small issue that is incredibly huge, or a huge issue that is very small, depending on where you are on your life journey.”

Switzerland is another country that has been bedeviled by the Muslim handshake problem. In many of its cantons, men and women have been required to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. But in 2016, education authorities in the municipality of Therwil ruled that Muslim male students will no longer need to shake hands with their female teachers. This created great consternation and an outcry across Switzerland, with Felix Mueri, who heads the parliamentary commission on science, education and culture, insisting that “shaking hands is part of our culture.” He added that “this is a gesture of respect and good manners.” 

Christoph Eymann, who heads the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, meanwhile said that “such exceptions to the rules are not the solution.” “We cannot tolerate that women in the public service are treated differently from men,” he told Swiss television.

Soon after, in the Canton of Basel-Landschafrt, the Swiss authorities ordered Muslims schoolboys who had refused to shake the hands of their female teachers either to shake their  hands or to pay 5,000 Swiss francs. That decision is the latest from Switzerland on the subject.

Outside Europe, where the handshake is most entrenched as a cultural practice, the Muslims have been more successful. In Australia, three of its main universities have declared that the religious beliefs of Muslim students must take precedence over the cultural practice of the handshake (which is not nearly as important in Australia, New Zealand, and North America as it is in Europe). In New Zealand, a senior academic repeatedly tried to shake hands with a female student, and even brought a charge of discrimination against her for refusing to do so. As a result, for trying to uphold the customary standards of public behavior, he lost his job.

This is one of those matters, seemingly inconsequential, on which a firm stand ought to be taken in Europe, where the handshake is so much more a part of school and work life. Every example, whether of surrender or resistance, to Muslim demands, is linked to every other such example. Muslims can believe whatever they want, but there are long-established rules in Europe for behavior in public, and that includes the handshake, as a sign of respect and solidarity, among colleagues at work, between students and their teachers in the public schools, and in social interactions of all kinds. If Muslims find this social custom something they cannot endure, they are free to resign their posts, and go elsewhere, to work in an Islamically-compliant workplace (possibly owned by Gulf Arabs),  or a private Islamic school, where they can hew not just to their beliefs, but to Islamic standards of behavior. Better still, they might find that given the depth of their devotion, they would prefer to return to live in a Muslim country, possibly the one from which they or their parents came, where there is no need for them to tolerate, much less be made to follow, the customs of the Infidels. Should that path be chosen, everyone involved — both the Muslims who leave, and the non-Muslims who remain, figuratively waving goodbye and good riddance — will be much relieved.

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