LONDON – Police said Sunday that a Muslim woman officer had refused to shake hands with London's police chief during a graduation ceremony last month due to her religious beliefs, fanning a debate in Britain over the assimilation of Muslims into society.
The woman – whose identity was not revealed – asked to be excused from the customary handshake with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair during the ceremony, saying her faith prohibited her from touching a man other than her husband or a close relative.
Blair immediately questioned the validity of her request, said a Metropolitan Police spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with force policy.
"Ordinarily the (police force) would not tolerate such requests. This request was only granted . . . to ensure the smooth running of what is one of the most important events in an officer's career," the spokeswoman said.
She said the incident was still being looked into by the force, but she declined to say whether the officer could face punishment.
The handshake refusal follows a string of highly publicized incidents involving the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
In October, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, said he routinely asked Muslim women visiting his office to remove their veils. A Muslim teaching assistant in northern England was then fired from her job for refusing to remove a black veil that left only her eyes visible. A Muslim lawyer also refused a judge's orders to remove her veil during a hearing.
Prime Minister Tony Blair eventually jumped into the debate, saying the full-face veil is "a mark of separation" and urging all immigrants to integrate into British society.
Muslim groups defended the police officer who refused to shake the commissioner's hand, saying her beliefs would not affect how she carried out her job and calling for greater understanding of different cultures.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, said the "overwhelming majority" of practicing Muslims avoid physical contact with members of the opposite sex unless they are closely related. But he added that those employed as police officers or doctors are routinely exempt from the rule in order to fulfill their duties.