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Malta has been struck by a wave of intolerance. What can we do about it? [WATCH]

Archbishop Charles Scicluna has urged the Church’s followers to practise the Church’s teachings and show tolerance towards people of different religious beliefs. But why is a loud lobby demanding that no more foreigners, especially Muslims, be allowed into Malta?

miriam jurgen
Miriam Dalli / Jurgen Balzan
11 February 2016, 7:00am
Helena Dalli: “The world is full of different people, good and bad. If someone is not impinging on your rights, you have nothing to fear. We can live a life of dignity and respect each other’s rights.”
Helena Dalli: “The world is full of different people, good and bad. If someone is not impinging on your rights, you have nothing to fear. We can live a life of dignity and respect each other’s rights.”
The temporary use of the Msida promenade by some of the Muslim community in Malta for Friday prayers saw self-proclaimed patriots’ movement Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin stage a protest – in which they distributed pork sandwiches in a wanton display of defiance to insist they wanted no one praying in public.

‘Malta,’ they said, ‘had only one religion – Roman Catholicism.’

Which is indeed constitutionally correct, although Malta’s adherence to international human rights and universal freedoms is a fact often overlooked by the Pegida-inspired patriots. That is something that the leader of the Maltese Catholic Church himself, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, reminds them in dismissing their claims.

“One can never count other religions’ prayers as a threat if you are certain of yourself and know that others have the same rights as you have,” he told MaltaToday. “Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religious belief. The rights which I enjoy should be enjoyed by others.”

Scicluna has urged the Church’s followers to practise the Church’s teachings and show tolerance towards people of different religious beliefs. “The Christian identity calls for tolerance towards other religions. But I admit that more needs to be done to move closer to tolerance.”

He also commented on certain “parochial phenomena” that showed lack of tolerance towards people coming from the same community, “let alone towards those we completely feel different from”.

It’s this core belief that has come to characterise the sudden rise of a right-wing, anti-Muslim feeling amongst the proponents of patriotism led by people like Alex Pisani and Henry Battistino. With their inelegant displays of Maltese ‘pride’, leading rallies carrying Maltese flags, they have been busy carrying signatures for a petition “against integration”. Legally, it’s a non-starter. Integration is not specifically a law that can be abrogated under Maltese referenda law.

The government working on a national integration policy which will identify the gaps in admission procedures for non-EU nationals in Malta, and develop an integration strategy to ensure better conditions for the integration of migrants and create a more inclusive society where communities can live together in peace and dignity.

In individual submissions to the policy’s public consultation, a hint of the fears prevalent from some sectors of Maltese society are laid bare. Examples include an opposition to the wearing of Burqas or Niqabs (the incorrect portmanteau of ni-jab, was used, only emphasizing the confusion on Islamic veil) – arguably the most visible symbol of religious submission. Another honest contribution from Eugene Sapiano, described how his son often referred to his teacher as ‘Miss Eva’ and upon seeing the black teacher in the school van, he instantly recognised his son had failed to comment on her colour, “teaching him a lesson” by laying bare his prejudice. And Francesca Fenech Conti asked that all TCNs are given some form of education that allows them to speak English and Maltese, a skills database to help them find jobs, and by creating mentoring programmes.

In one detailed presentation, Norman Scicluna wants migrants to be assimilated “rather than encouraged and assisted to retain their origins”, as well as being familiarised with Maltese history, traditions and customs, civic behaviour and accepted public morals – even personal hygiene, cleanliness, mode-of-dress, dress etiquette, and healthy lifestyles (not that the latter are Maltese people’s strongest points, especially considering the penchant for scant dress and a recurring obesity epidemic). 

But Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli says the government wanted to develop ways how different communities can live together. “Our Constitution clearly says that we cannot discriminate on religion or race. Do we want to live by our Constitution?”

Pointing out that Maltese society was made up of different nationalities, Dalli said a consultative council set up to work on the integration policy has held meetings with different organisations and individuals to listen to the different perspectives.

She said the experiences of those who have succeeded in integrating were pivotal and the minister did not dismiss fears which are surfacing, arguing that it was understandable that people at times fear the unknown.

“I understand certain fears, but you cannot generalise. There is also the fear of the new. The world is full of different people, good and bad. If someone is not impinging on your rights, you have nothing to fear. We can live a life of dignity and respect each other’s rights.”

Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola – co-author of a bi-partisan report on integration – said the way forward was a two-way process whereby people are granted protection and given the rights they are entitled to, whilst expecting respect for the values upon which the European Union is built. “We can’t close our eyes to people’s fears on security and that is why I believe that everyone has the right to feel safe in our European cities. For this to happen, we have to ensure that member states satisfy their obligations and, yes, we must know where they’re coming from and where they’re going to,” she said.

Metsola argued that blaming refugees for everything that goes on was an easy trap to fall into. Integration remains a highly sensitive issue, and she warns against falling into populist rhetoric. “The only way forward is to consider it as a two-way process, giving people the rights they deserve but, as it is just and legitimate, expecting everyone to respect the values upon which the EU is built.”

But she cautioned against allowing the ghettoization of cities which could act as “breeding grounds for terrorist cells” or the dissemination of radicalised and extremist thoughts.

The concerns are not far-fetched, and it is because of this that Malta Muslim Council Foundation spokesperson Bader Zina has urged the government to help the community find an adequate place for their Friday prayers.

“Can you live without air or water? That is how important the prayers and teachings are to us,” Zina said.

He went on to explain that a regular setup would allow better knowledge of their community and improve cooperation with the state. “No one can then claim that they have no rights or that they’re not being respected,” he said.

Echoing Metsola’s arguments, Zina stressed that integration is a two-way process.

“What we normally do is visit newcomers, including those who would be held in detention centres, to educate them and inform them about Malta, its culture and its religion,” he said.

But not everyone is happy with the government’s decision to launch a national integration policy. The self-declared “Maltese patriots” insist integration is not the right answer.

So what they think is integration? According to the secretary of the Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin, “one cannot say what integration is” – and perhaps there lies the rub of the convoluted message the patriots tend to convey during rallies where they have to literally warn their own members ‘not to use racist commentary’.

“People have the right to decide for themselves on integration after fully understanding its implications. We don’t want integration to be forced upon us and it was in no political party manifesto,” Henry Battistino said.

He claims the government is trying to naturalise “people who entered Malta illegally”. 

“Our petition has been signed by thousands, which means that thousands do not want Malta to be burdened by integration,” he said.

Asked what law they were petitioning against, Battistino said the GhPM was well aware “of political tactics… If we collect 34,000 signatures they should not be ignored,” he said, before insisting that that multiculturalism had failed in Europe. “Which bully wants to tell us that it will work in Malta?”

Battistino offers no definition of what a successful multicultural country is, although the USA is a country built on migration, as well as much of Europe.

And while saying that the GhPM held nothing against different religions, Battistino then adds that, “the problem of integration in Europe are Muslims”. 

He quickly points out that Muslims in Malta never created any problems. Take Libyans, he says: “They generated wealth and carried out a lot of business with the Maltese. They came and went and never created any trouble. But it was a question of numbers. The numbers then were small.”

So does he have the figures of Muslims in Malta? And how many of these are Maltese? Battistino says his challenge is for others to come up with the figures.

“When they start to come in large numbers they gain a sense of entitlement [irabbu l-arja] and start imposing a culture that is alien to us. Certain systems are not integrable [sic] and do not match our Western style of life,” Battistino claims.

It takes only a little probing for Battistino to betray the patriots’ bias.

“Us and the left parties in Malta and Europe must understand that there is one common enemy… Those who want to establish a world order.” It is unclear who he refers to, but it looks like a scenario that is squarely based on an undefined fear.

Miriam Dalli graduated in communications studies from the University of ...
Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...