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Shaken Identities: A refused handshake and its politicization in Switzerland


Bürgin, Martin (2023). Shaken Identities: A refused handshake and its politicization in Switzerland. In: Hashemi, Morteza; Cotter, Chris. Religion in Fortress Europe: Perspectives on Belief, Citizenship, and Identity in a Time of Polarized Politics. London: Bloomsbury, 99-114, 180, 201.

Abstract

In spring 2016, a local incident at a Swiss secondary school became the source of transnational media coverage, national political activism and a cantonal legislation process. At the secondary school of Therwil, a rather small town in the Canton of Basel-Landschaft, counting approximately 430 students living in Therwil and the surrounding villages, two teenage students refused to shake hands with their female teacher.

In their perception of Islam, the two Muslim boys reportedly argued, a handshake with a woman would transgress their religious conviction. They justified the refusal of the handshake, referring to the teacher's sex and/ or gender. Accordingly, they did not refuse to shake hands with their male teacher. At the level of the local school as well as in the following debates, this disparity was largely interpreted as sexual discrimination against the female teacher and a violation of the school's gender equality policy.

In order to take both interests - religious diversity and gender equality – into account, the local school management mediated a temporary code of conduct, which ought to ensure the equal treatment of female and male teachers and ought to be in accordance with the religious regulations, postulated by the students and their parents. Tue involved parties agreed that the two students address their teachers for the future with another form of appropriate and respectful greeting. This form of greeting however had to be applied to all teachers, independently of their sex and/or gender. In other words, the agreement forbade the students to shake hands with male teachers as long as they refused to shake hands with female teachers. Although a practical modus operandi was established, the school management brought the case to the attention of the cantonal department of education, expressing the wish for guidelines on how to deal within analogous situations henceforward.

Meanwhile, the discussion of the subject left the narrow sphere of the local and cantonal educational system. When a studio audience attendee on a Swiss television political talk show called Arena referred to the case - in an episode broadcasted under the lurid title Angst vor dem Islam (Fear of Islam) – the incident was brought to public attention. Although spoken in Swiss German, which is neither spoken nor understood in all parts of the country, Arena was at the time the political talk show that gained the highest number of viewers, reaching a market share of almost 20 per cent of all television programmes broadcast in Switzerland, including non-political programmes and foreign channels. Subsequently, news media picked up the incident. Talk masters, journalists and politicians commented on the case, linking and expanding it with discourses on migration, diversity, integration, assimilation, cultural boundaries, Islamophobia, foreignness and citizenship. Tue local incident of two Muslim students refusing to shake hands with their female teacher – catchily addressed as the Therwil case, the Handshake Affair of Therwil, the Therwilian Handshake Affair or simply the Handshake of Therwil - became the subject of a nationwide political debate.

The handshake - a common, but certainly not comprehensively applied, salutatory practice at Swiss schools - was declared to be an old-established custom, an expression of courtesy, a symbol of Swiss values and, as the minister of justice expressed, an essential part of Swiss culture.

With over 450 media articles from local newspapers to broadcasters like Al Jazeera and publications like The New York Times, with a transnational audience the Therwil Affair gained - be it as a controversial topic or a bizarre oddity - the status of a media affair (Stahel 2021). The extensive media coverage, as well as the demand of political measures postulated by politicians of influence on a national level, in turn put pressure on the regional authorities and politicians in the Canton of Basel-Landschaft. This resulted in a legislative process to modify the educational law as well as the cantonal constitution.

The Therwil Affair also had an impact on the academic world and became a subject of several enquiries in different disciplines. Petra Bleisch reflected the affair within the scope of professional ethics in the educational system (Bleisch 2016). Jurists Fabienne Bretscher (Bretscher 2017), Anne Kühler (Kühler 2018a, b, 2021) and Laila Hersi (Hersi 2018) discussed the case in the perspective of comparative and constitutional law. Lea Stahel focused on the media scandalization and the concept of collapsing contexts in networked publics (Stahel 2018, 2021). Bryan Turner and Rosario Forlenza included the case in a survey on the politics of Europe's religious borders (Forlenza and Turner 2019, 9). Christoph Baumgartner reconstructed arguments of different handshake debates in several countries, considering motives from Islamic legal discourses, which he illustrates as the basis of the refusal to shake hands, and turns to a normative disquisition of the matter (Baumgartner 2019). Rafael Walthert, Katharina Frank, Daniela Stauffacher and Urs Weber used the affair as a case study for a systems-theoretical analysis (Walthert et al. 2021). Mirjam Aeschbach discussed the relationship between culture, religion and gender in the debates around the case as a process of culturalization (Aeschbach 2021). Philipp Hetmanczyk examined different concepts of diversity within the debate and their implications for the politicization of public schools (Hetmanczyk 2021). The present chapter (like Bürgin 2021) explores the relationship between law, religion and the politics of remembrance. It analyses the political debates in the mentioned cantonal legislative process, verbalized in its central documents; it contextualizes implicit and explicit imaginations of belonging, expressed in the parliamentary and governmental bills; and it shows how collective memories are used to mobilize political action.

Abstract

In spring 2016, a local incident at a Swiss secondary school became the source of transnational media coverage, national political activism and a cantonal legislation process. At the secondary school of Therwil, a rather small town in the Canton of Basel-Landschaft, counting approximately 430 students living in Therwil and the surrounding villages, two teenage students refused to shake hands with their female teacher.

In their perception of Islam, the two Muslim boys reportedly argued, a handshake with a woman would transgress their religious conviction. They justified the refusal of the handshake, referring to the teacher's sex and/ or gender. Accordingly, they did not refuse to shake hands with their male teacher. At the level of the local school as well as in the following debates, this disparity was largely interpreted as sexual discrimination against the female teacher and a violation of the school's gender equality policy.

In order to take both interests - religious diversity and gender equality – into account, the local school management mediated a temporary code of conduct, which ought to ensure the equal treatment of female and male teachers and ought to be in accordance with the religious regulations, postulated by the students and their parents. Tue involved parties agreed that the two students address their teachers for the future with another form of appropriate and respectful greeting. This form of greeting however had to be applied to all teachers, independently of their sex and/or gender. In other words, the agreement forbade the students to shake hands with male teachers as long as they refused to shake hands with female teachers. Although a practical modus operandi was established, the school management brought the case to the attention of the cantonal department of education, expressing the wish for guidelines on how to deal within analogous situations henceforward.

Meanwhile, the discussion of the subject left the narrow sphere of the local and cantonal educational system. When a studio audience attendee on a Swiss television political talk show called Arena referred to the case - in an episode broadcasted under the lurid title Angst vor dem Islam (Fear of Islam) – the incident was brought to public attention. Although spoken in Swiss German, which is neither spoken nor understood in all parts of the country, Arena was at the time the political talk show that gained the highest number of viewers, reaching a market share of almost 20 per cent of all television programmes broadcast in Switzerland, including non-political programmes and foreign channels. Subsequently, news media picked up the incident. Talk masters, journalists and politicians commented on the case, linking and expanding it with discourses on migration, diversity, integration, assimilation, cultural boundaries, Islamophobia, foreignness and citizenship. Tue local incident of two Muslim students refusing to shake hands with their female teacher – catchily addressed as the Therwil case, the Handshake Affair of Therwil, the Therwilian Handshake Affair or simply the Handshake of Therwil - became the subject of a nationwide political debate.

The handshake - a common, but certainly not comprehensively applied, salutatory practice at Swiss schools - was declared to be an old-established custom, an expression of courtesy, a symbol of Swiss values and, as the minister of justice expressed, an essential part of Swiss culture.

With over 450 media articles from local newspapers to broadcasters like Al Jazeera and publications like The New York Times, with a transnational audience the Therwil Affair gained - be it as a controversial topic or a bizarre oddity - the status of a media affair (Stahel 2021). The extensive media coverage, as well as the demand of political measures postulated by politicians of influence on a national level, in turn put pressure on the regional authorities and politicians in the Canton of Basel-Landschaft. This resulted in a legislative process to modify the educational law as well as the cantonal constitution.

The Therwil Affair also had an impact on the academic world and became a subject of several enquiries in different disciplines. Petra Bleisch reflected the affair within the scope of professional ethics in the educational system (Bleisch 2016). Jurists Fabienne Bretscher (Bretscher 2017), Anne Kühler (Kühler 2018a, b, 2021) and Laila Hersi (Hersi 2018) discussed the case in the perspective of comparative and constitutional law. Lea Stahel focused on the media scandalization and the concept of collapsing contexts in networked publics (Stahel 2018, 2021). Bryan Turner and Rosario Forlenza included the case in a survey on the politics of Europe's religious borders (Forlenza and Turner 2019, 9). Christoph Baumgartner reconstructed arguments of different handshake debates in several countries, considering motives from Islamic legal discourses, which he illustrates as the basis of the refusal to shake hands, and turns to a normative disquisition of the matter (Baumgartner 2019). Rafael Walthert, Katharina Frank, Daniela Stauffacher and Urs Weber used the affair as a case study for a systems-theoretical analysis (Walthert et al. 2021). Mirjam Aeschbach discussed the relationship between culture, religion and gender in the debates around the case as a process of culturalization (Aeschbach 2021). Philipp Hetmanczyk examined different concepts of diversity within the debate and their implications for the politicization of public schools (Hetmanczyk 2021). The present chapter (like Bürgin 2021) explores the relationship between law, religion and the politics of remembrance. It analyses the political debates in the mentioned cantonal legislative process, verbalized in its central documents; it contextualizes implicit and explicit imaginations of belonging, expressed in the parliamentary and governmental bills; and it shows how collective memories are used to mobilize political action.

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Item Type:Book Section, not_refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:01 Faculty of Theology and the Study of Religion > Institute of Religious Studies
Dewey Decimal Classification:200 Religion
Language:English
Date:23 February 2023
Deposited On:28 Apr 2023 13:41
Last Modified:25 Jun 2024 03:37
Publisher:Bloomsbury
ISBN:9781350341104
OA Status:Closed
Related URLs:https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/religion-in-fortress-europe-9781350341104/ (Publisher)
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