If you do not shake your teacher’s hand in Switzerland, you can get fined 5000 Swiss Francs. It does not matter that you might not like the teacher, or you do not like shaking hands. The case refers to two Muslim brothers who out of religious conviction refused to shake a female teacher’s hand. According to Swissinfo.ch, the Basel Board of Education said, “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”.
The handshake crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. There have been other efforts to ban construction of minarets, wearing the headscarf, and Halal and Kosher food practices. Switzerland is not alone, such bans can be seen across Europe. For example, in Germany, universities have begun closing prayer rooms used by Muslims on the ground that religion should not play a role at the university. In some European cities, women are forced to choose between wearing a headscarf and being part of society. As the forced assimilation of Muslims across Europe continues, we can expect more such laws being proposed further escalating the conflict between Christianity and Islam. Moreover, while the focus is on Islam, smaller Orthodox communities, e.g. Orthodox Jews, are being affected as well.
Make no mistake, I find religious rules that separate communities, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish, a direct threat to the way I live: inclusive, accepting, and positive. Such rules, if they remain unchecked, will continue to breed intolerance and inter-religious violence. So yes we should do something to limit their ability to divide society, but not by forcing integration.
What the School Board in Basel may not have considered is that by forcing the children to shake a teacher’s hand, it masks the root cause of the problem, namely a lack of common understanding as to live in a pluralistic world. The problem with the current approach to Islamic or other extremism is that the countermeasures being developed are equally extreme and authoritarian. When governments begin to tell us how to behave, live our lives, speak at home, or how to dress, it is crossing a dangerous line between the government as the mediator of societal conflicts to the government as an oppressor. And with this, we sow the seeds of long-term social unrest and civil disobedience.
We cannot win a war against extremism by becoming extreme ourselves. We also cannot win by appeasement. Radical Islam is a threat to everyone including Muslims. If we want to beat extremism, we have to defeat its energy funding integration and civil society initiatives focused on supporting local communities.
Governments underestimate the power of local dialogues in communities. It is important that religious leaders have both the resources and the support to sustain a dialogue both within their communities and with other religious communities over democratic values, inclusion, and living in multicultural societies.
It is important to build networks, partnerships and support groups to address the concerns of all citizens, especially partnerships with churches, mosques, and synagogues that support dialogues about religious freedom and inclusion. By building what we call the third side: the silent pro-peace majority, we create a web of peace and inclusion.
Quite often religious intolerance comes from a lack of education or from education by unqualified persons. All religious leaders should have a minimum of official education in Islamic teaching before they may serve their communities. Governments should also invest in academic religious studies programs. For example, in Germany the state finances Christian academies where dialogues and training sessions on all sorts of topics take place.
Part of having an inclusive and diverse society is that everyone feels safe. The recent religiously motivated attacks in Europe have fueled fear in European communities. People just do not feel safe, both majority and minority communities. Yet police work in Europe is hampered by rules that are outdated, lack of technology, and personnel and resources. Hate crimes of all kind need to be severely punished.
If we are to defeat extremism, we need to begin by transforming the way we fight it. We cannot be afraid to stand up to extremism, but we cannot force assimilation and expect extremism to go away. We must work together to resist the temptation for extreme countermeasures on all sides. There is an African proverb “When spider webs unite, they can halt even a lion.” If you are afraid of someone in your community, reach out to them and invite them to a community dialogue.