STOCKHOLM—The simple act of a handshake has become controversial because of growing Muslim populations in several European countries. In the past week, the issue has made headlines in Switzerland, France, Sweden, and Denmark.
What some may see as a trivial matter has become a flashpoint, similar to that of religious dress codes or prayer calls.
Some Muslims argue that Islam doesn’t permit physical contact between people of the opposite sex outside of one’s immediate family, and won’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex, usually opting instead for a bow, with the hand placed on the chest.
However, shaking hands is a deeply rooted custom in many European countries and elsewhere, not only as a form of greeting, but also as a way of symbolically sealing deals, which can make the refusal to do so offensive.
Sometimes, refusing to shake hands can have dramatic consequences with regard to court cases, political careers, and even denied citizenships.
In Switzerland, a Muslim couple was recently denied citizenship, partially on the grounds that they wouldn’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex, AFP reported on Aug. 17. Three days later, a French court upheld a decision to deny a passport to a Muslim who refused to shake hands during the actual citizenship ceremony.
In Denmark, three major political parties demanded that shaking hands with an official should be included in the already mandatory citizenship ceremony, Nyheder TV2 reported on Aug. 19.
‘Necessary to Legislate’
Martin Henriksen, spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, one of the parties behind that demand, told Nyheder TV2 that shaking hands is a Danish custom, and many people take offense when an outstretched hand goes ignored.
“I’m sure some people feel that it’s harsh to legislate, but it’s just that not all people understand this, so it’s necessary to send that signal by legislating,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, a court recently ruled in favor of Farah Alhajeh, a Muslim woman whose interview with a prospective employer was cut short when she refused to shake hands with the interviewer. Alhajeh, whose case was taken on by the Swedish Equality Ombudsman, was awarded $4,500 in damages in a case that may set an important precedent.
“I hope this gives hope to other Muslims going through the same thing […] and makes them feel that justice is possible in the end,” Alhajeh told Swedish Television.
Some commentators argue, however, that this development won’t be beneficial for Muslims in the long run.
‘Not Doing Them Any Favors’
“[Shaking hands] is a central norm in Swedish culture,” author and conservative blogger Rebecca Weidemo Uvell wrote. “Teaching immigrants that it’s fine to ignore this is not doing them any favors. They will tick off an untold number of Swedes over the course of their lives and make it more difficult for themselves to make Swedish friends, get a job, and get treated with respect,” she wrote.
The consequences of ignoring this norm was felt by Swedish politician Yasri Khan in 2016. Khan was nominated to the central party board of the Green Party, but chose to leave his political posts after facing harsh criticism and negative news coverage for refusing to shake hands with a female reporter.
For the Green Party, which promotes feminism, seeing Khan treating males and females differently was the dealbreaker. The refusal to shake hands has sometimes been framed in terms of accepting local customs, and sometimes more in terms of gender equality. Those who argue their right to refuse to shake hands have both appealed to religious freedom and the issue of intimacy.
Swedish author and Middle East expert Eli Göndör argues that this issue is reflective of the clash between two cultures—Sunni Muslims from the Middle East and Christian Europeans—who are used to being the majority culture and not having to adapt to others.
Commenting on the ongoing handshake cases taken on by the Equality Ombudsman, Göndör wrote in Fokus magazine in 2016 that it “may seem like a tangential issue. But decisions determine to what extent minorities succeed in their ambition to adapt the norms of the majority community in their favor. Each decision reinforces or shapes the identities of the involved parties, and the way they relate to each other.”