The row erupted after a school in Therwil in the Swiss Canton of Basel-Country ruled that Muslim boys would no longer have to shake hands with female teachers.
The school reached their decision after two Syrian brothers – the sons of an imam – argued that being made to do so went against Islamic teachings which prohibit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, aside from immediate family members.
The school’s ruling caused outrage in Switzerland with socialist politician and justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga coming out on national television to say that “shaking hands is part of our culture”.
Regional authorities in Basel-Country reacted by saying they would bring in outside legal advice to settle the issue.
Now the students, aged 14 and 16, have spoken out about the affair for the first time.
“We’re not harming anyone,” said the younger of the two brothers in an interview with Swiss weekly SonntagsZeitung, strongly denying that the refusal to shake hands with female teachers was meant as a provocation.
He said instead it was about living according to the tenets of Islam and showing respect to women.
The teenager described the reaction in Switzerland as absurd, saying journalists were hounding them “at school and at the mosque” and that they were being threatened by “complete strangers”.
His older brother, meanwhile, spoke of more sinister forces at work.
“Politicians are using us to stir up anti-Muslim feeling,” he said, making a direct reference to the nationalist Swiss People’s Party which has received international attention for its anti-immigration stance.
“We respect Swiss culture and of course we obey the laws of this country. We try as much as possible to integrate. But we have our own culture. We can’t just delete that like a hard drive,” the 16-year-old said.
He also denied arguments that the boys were being “manipulated” by religious authorities and talked down claims they had been radicalized.
Since the scandal erupted, it has emerged that his younger brother posted Isis videos on his Facebook page. But the 14-year-old said this had nothing to do with radicalization either.
“I was 12 years old and didn’t even know what Isis was. It was just about the music. I liked it,” he said.
During the interview, the boys explained they had learned about the prohibition on physical contact on the internet, with their father confirming its validity.
“No one can force us to touch someone’s hand,” the brothers told SonntagsZeitung, saying that any attempt in that direction was a form of discrimination.
In related news, on Sunday it emerged that a male student in the canton of Geneva had also refused all physical contact with a female teacher.
The incident took place early in 2015 during a physical education class while the student was doing abdominal exercises. When his female teacher attempted to correct his posture, the student rejected contact with her, citing religious grounds, according to Swiss broadcaster RTS.
The student was allowed to continue attending sports classes without physical contact with female students or teachers, the school’s director told RTS.