Muslim teacher claims discrimination

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A Muslim man who lost his job as a substitute teacher at an Oslo elementary school has filed a discrimination complaint with state authorities. He claims his contract wasn’t renewed on religious grounds, because of his refusal to greet women with a handshake.

The Ekeberg elementary school in Oslo has been accused of discriminating against a teacher who, as a practicing Muslim, refuses to shake hands with women. The teacher’s temporary job contract was not extended, after he also endured what’s been described as violence and racism during his short tenure at the school. PHOTO: Wikipedia

“Folks think that’s because I look down on women,” the man, who’s in his 40s, told newspaper Dagsavisen, “but it’s to create fewer temptations. My understanding of Islam is that this (touching a woman) is forbidden by the Prophet, peace be with him, and I follow that.”

The man, who doesn’t want his name to be published, speaks perfect Norwegian and is said to be well-qualified as a teacher. Dagsavisen reported that he’s especially gifted in languages and decided that he wanted to use that competence to work with minority children. He graduated from a state qualification program and said he has always been open about his religious beliefs, also clarifying in his job interviews that he doesn’t shake hands with women.

Last April he was offered a temporary job at the Ekeberg elementary school on Oslo’s east side. Ekeberg officials confirm they knew he didn’t shake hands with women but hired him as a trainee, also so that he could get the work experience he needed. He claims he worked hard, and was rewarded with an offer to continue in a temporary position through the end of last year.

‘Tough’ workdays and ‘racist’ pupils
He says his days were “tough,” however, with several incidents of what he calls “physical violence” and racism. One pupil hit him, the school itself confirms, while others raised their arms in Nazi greetings and bullied him. “I held out because I wanted to make as good an impression as possible, so that I would be offered a permanent job when my training period was over,” he told Dagsavisen.

One colleague reacted to how some of the pupils treated him and wrote a complaint to school leadership on his behalf. Others, however, began to complain that they were offended by his refusal to greet them or parents with a handshake.

“I couldn’t see how we could defend his refusal to shake hands either with school employees, parents or pupils,” Bente Alfheim, the former principal at Ekeberg, told Dagsavisen. She apologized for the poor treatment he received on the job, confirming that some pupils acted in an “unacceptable” manner towards him, but said the school “followed up” in addressing the “deeply unfortunate” incidents.

Female colleagues offended
Alfheim said that the reports she received from female colleagues, however, caused problems because they felt that he rejected their hands. When his contract ran out last December, he was told that the school didn’t want him to continue working unless he changed his practice and began to shake hands with both men and women. He was disappointed and upset, he said, because he had tolerated the incidents of violence and racism in vain.

Norway’s anti-discrimination organization OMOD has taken up the man’s case and both its leader, Akhenaton Oddvar de Leon, and Alfheim think its outcome will be important. “I have never been involved in such a case, and the outcome will create a precedent,” Alfheim told Dagsavisen. The case is already being compared to the so called Hodne case, in which a hair dresser on Norway’s West Coast refused to cut the hair of Muslim women who covered their heads with a hijab. She was convicted of discrimination.

“Denying anyone goods or services based on religion is a criminal offense,” de Leon said.

City government leader supports school
The leader of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, however, is supporting the Ekeberg School’s leaders. “Refusing to shake hands for religious reasons should not occur in the City of Oslo,” Johansen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “You shouldn’t be able to avoid touching another person because religious reasons find it unacceptable.”

De Leon maintains that Norway practices freedom of religion, and that the Muslim teacher’s failure to secure a job because of his religious beliefs is a clear case of discrimination. They have filed a complaint with the state’s anti-discrimination board (Diskrimineringsnemnda).

The man, meanwhile, was also initially denied unemployment benefits because he “turned down further work” and that neither he nor his wife had done “what’s necessary to acquire income for the family.” He later was granted reduced benefits because they have children, and has stressed in his complaint that he was not given a “real choice” to keep his job.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund