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frank_psaila
Frank Psaila

Jumu’ah on the Msida seafront

We are living in dangerous times and whoever was behind the idea that a group of Muslim men conduct their Friday prayers on the Msida seafront, alongside a busy main road was, unintentionally, doing a disservice to the Muslim community.

frank_psaila
Frank Psaila
27 January 2016, 7:03am
In January 2009, several hundred demonstrators took part in a Muslim prayer service outside one of Europe’s most revered Christian places of worship, Milan’s Duomo, to protest at the Israeli offensive in Gaza. There was an uproar, and on the urging of a minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, a Mass was said on the same spot. The right wing politician, and the hundreds of Catholics who congregated on the steps of the Duomo, saw their actions as a way of reclaiming the space for Catholicism.

The Msida Church happens to be a few steps away from the spot chosen by the handful of local Muslims to conduct their prayers. Comparisons are odious, not least because the Msida Church is no Duomo.

Nonetheless, there is nothing different from the reaction by a large segment of the local population at seeing Muslim men congregating, for the Friday payers [Jumu’ah], on the Msida seafront. Many considered it to be an act of provocation, others that their prophecy of Catholic Malta in the grip of Islam was well on its way to being fulfilled.

Others are just not comfortable that Muslims, by virtue of the change of demographics, not least due to legal migration, are going to become more and more visible in Malta. Many Muslims living in Malta are Maltese. They have voting rights, work and pay their taxes just as you and I do.  

Islamophobia

Islamophobia, and scapegoating of Muslims, usually boils down to lack of proper education. As Integra Foundation director Maria Pisani rightly stated in comments to MaltaToday, “The biggest threat to Maltese ‘values’ is an extremist response fuelled by fear and hysteria – be it Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical or otherwise”.

Of course, Muslims who live in secular Europe need to respect the values and norms of living in a secular society, and accept criticism towards their practices and beliefs [not all do], just as Christians [there are exceptions, which admittedly are not few] accept criticism towards their beliefs and practices.

The massacres that took place in Denmark and Paris [Charlie Hebdo], following caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, were not only criminal and outrageous, but seriously hindered efforts towards integration of law-abiding Muslims in society.

The radicalisation of young French and Belgians at the hands of radicalised Western Imams, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of young, and not so young, in Paris in the dying weeks of 2015, and the recent mass rapes in Cologne, perpetrated by criminals who sought refuge in Germany, complicate matters further for law abiding Muslims, who are the majority.

Unfortunately, and despite repeated calls by Pope Francis urging Muslim leaders around the world to condemn terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, Islamic leaders have been slow in condemning crimes committed in the name of Islam.

Dangerous times

In normal circumstances, it would be pointless to discuss praying in public. There is no harm in praying, never was. But these are not normal circumstances. We are living in dangerous times and whoever was behind the idea that a group of Muslim men conduct their Friday prayers on the Msida seafront, alongside a busy main road was, unintentionally, doing a disservice to the Muslim community.

Dangerous times call for sensitive measures and sensible decisions. Such decisions only serve to fuel Islamophobia. I don’t believe that the local ‘Imam’ who led the Friday prayers on the Msida seafront was seeking provocation between Muslims and outraged Catholics, but it was a lack of common sense and foresight. This has nothing to do with denying other faiths. Neither is it about reclaiming the Msida seafront for Catholicism. The French government banned praying in the streets of Paris citing secular reasons in doing so. It is reported that local Imams supported the decision.

Registered places of worship

In Malta, we have one officially recognised Mosque, in Paola, run by Imam Mohammed El Sadi. The Paola Mosque is a popular place of worship, and no one objects to the sight of a packed Mosque, which overspills into the yard in front of it on Friday afternoons. Neither do nearby residents object that the adhan [call to prayer], ring out across the area.

However, it is estimated that there are, at least, another six mosques in Malta and Gozo, which are not recognised as an official place of worship. If the Paola Mosque is too small to cater for all Muslims residing in Malta, or it does not cater for all Muslim denominations, then, instead of resorting to public places and underground Mosques, local authorities should cater for other places of worship which are registered and officially recognised. 

 

Needed: long term solutions

The local authorities have now stepped in and addressed the matter temporarily. However, a long term solution needs to be found. The Muslim community in Malta is growing at a very fast rate and with the introduction of the citizenship scheme, a significant number of well-off Middle Easterners and North Africans have set up residence in Malta, notably Sliema.  

Mowafak Toutoungi, a founding member of the Malta Muslim Council, told MaltaToday that he was confident a solution to the community’s 15-year-long pursuit for regularised places of worship would be found.

MaltaToday reported that the latest refusal, for a Muslim place of worship, came in August of last year when the council had filed an application for the change of use of a large garage in Sta Venera. Despite being given the green light by the MEPA case officer, the permit was blocked after the local council objected to the change of use to turn the site into a multi-purpose hall. The council did not want to have a mosque in the locality. 

Muslims in Malta are expected to respect the traditions, values and beliefs of Maltese citizens. However, there are thousands of Muslims residing, legally, in Malta and the local authorities cannot, and have absolutely no right to deny them the right to pray.

Freedom of expression and religion are fundamental values. Conducting Friday prayers alongside a busy main road is neither a fundamental right nor, given the circumstances, a sensible way forward. However, refusing to provide Muslims with regularised places of worship is neither fair nor sensible. It will only result in underground ‘places of worship’ which poses a serious risk to the rise of radicalisation. Long-term solutions are needed. 

frank_psaila
Frank Psaila, a lawyer by profession, anchors Iswed fuq l-Abjad on Net TV. He was formerly...
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