by Labeeb Ahmed
An incredible amount of controversy and interest has been generated regarding the refusal of two Muslim students in Therwil, Switzerland to shake hands with their female teacher, and the subsequent threat of a 5,000 dollar fine by Swiss authorities to the parents of students who withhold this greeting. Many would like to point to an element of backwardness or sexual inequality in Islam, while others find this incident to be a rejection of a fundamental component of Swiss culture, and thus a denial of integration by the Muslims in the country.
Firstly, this is a gross injustice to Clause 3, Article 27 of the Switzerland Constitution, which states: “It shall be possible for the adherents of all religious beliefs to attend public schools without being affected in any way in their freedom of belief or conscience.” I do not wish to purport that a state must allow adherents of a faith to follow any and every rule they so desire. For example, if a rule is allowed that threatens the peace and common well-being of the members of society, then such freedom of religion is deeply flawed and counter-productive. Also, the integration of Muslims in western countries is a process that has been unnecessarily retarded by egotism from both sides. As long as the rules and laws of the country do not violate their rights to practice their religion, all Muslims should take special heed to follow all laws and respect the cultures of their new countries.
His Holiness, Mirza Masroor, the head of the international Ahmadiyya Muslim Community with tens of millions of followers around the world, has said, “…All immigrants should be loyal to their adopted nation, they should truly love it, they should honour it, they should be law abiding and work for its prosperity and progress. This is integration.” However, to penalize members of a faith on a practice that causes no harm points to an undercurrent of anti-Islamic sentiment in Switzerland.
While I completely respect the importance of any cultural norm in Switzerland, it seems these recent rulings also violate another clause of their Constitution (Clause 3, Article 69), which states: “In the fulfillment of its duties, it shall take account of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country.”
Yet to paint the tenets of Islam as a culture there is a need for an appropriate brush. While it is an unfortunate reality that in some Muslim countries there is a baseless dehumanization of women in society, I affirm this is strictly rooted in a culture that is alien to Islam. The Islamic injunction of not shaking hands with women has a profound and beautiful philosophy behind it, which I will now explain.
It is first essential to understand that Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the verbatim word of God, eternal and unchanging. Therefore, its teachings can be applied to all times and situations, and not subject to change because the norms and customs of a society change. Also, if a Muslim does truly believe that the Qur’an is actually the word of God, why would he/she not try to fulfill its ordinances to the highest degree?
Furthermore, Islam repeatedly stresses the equality of men and women in various facets of life. For example, the Holy Qur’an proclaims, “But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven” (4:125) and the Holy Prophet Muhammad taught, “It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge.” However, equality does not necessarily mean that men and women are the exact same, which is a basic fact hinging on the clear differences in our physiological and psychological makeups. Accordingly, women are awarded more rights in some areas, while men are given more in others.
Next, a key attribute behind the wisdom of Islamic teaching is to prevent sin by cutting at the roots of all evil. This is why alcohol, commonly referred to as mother of all vices, is forbidden. From commanding men to lower their gaze when women appear and women to wear veils to guard their beauty in public, Islam holds its followers to the highest level of chastity, modesty, and purity. Any unnecessary physical contact between members of the opposite sex is discouraged; instead; this contact should be only reserved for your spouse. Who then can, with good and genuine intentions blame the two students for wanting to maintain their sense of piety and respect for their future wives? Although it may seem petty, the loosening of moral rules inevitably causes a chain reaction that breaks down moral standards, making the average person less and less conscious of them. Thus, it is not wholly a matter of getting aroused upon a simple handshake, but a matter of maintaining proper adherence to the principles and guidance enshrined in the religion they so deeply cherish.
Most importantly, the rule of not shaking hands with women logically applies both ways; women should also not shake hands with men. Of course, the use of wisdom also plays an important role in Islam. If a Muslim doctor must operate on someone from the opposite gender, then by all means they can and should (and a Muslim patient can also freely allow for doctor of the opposite gender to touch them).
In conclusion, the authorities in Switzerland are violating not only their own Constitution and the universal principle of freedom of religion, but also attempting to impose an unnecessary action on those who wish to engage in passive resistance for their own moral and spiritual welfare.