Time to adapt to new social realities

Maltese society has evolved to a point where it can no longer comfortably fit in any one category, as well as receiving an influx of foreigners

4 October 2016, 8:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
There can be little doubt that the profile of Malta’s population has changed considerably over the past few decades. This is in itself is nothing new: Malta has always been a melting pot of cultures and civilisations, as indicated by (among other things) our language.

Yet by the 20th century, Malta had settled into a largely homogenous population. Up until just a few decades ago, one could safely talk about certain shared national characteristics: that Malta was a 98% Catholic country, for instance, or certain assumptions about popular attitudes towards moral issues.

This has however changed beyond recognition in recent years. Not only has Maltese society evolved to a point where it can no longer comfortably fit in any one category... but an influx of foreigners over the years also means that the term ‘Maltese resident’ no longer applies exclusively to people of direct Maltese extraction. Our country is now home to a broader spectrum of nationalities, cultures and creeds. It is time that the diversity of the Maltese character is recognised as a reality.

Sadly, this is not happening everywhere. The recent decision by the St Paul’s Bay local council to object to a proposed mosque – to cater for the locality’s growing Muslim population – echoes a similar recent controversy in Msida. In both cases, the objectors pointed towards legal arguments to deny a section of the community a place of worship. But it is difficult to escape the notion that the common approach represents elements that would rather cling to an outdated perspective on what being part of the community means. 

In the more recent case, the St Paul’s Bay mayor took to Facebook to explain the council’s decision. Of particular concern was the following observation: “During the council meeting there was also reference to the fact that this place has been operating illegally [...] Illegal activities such as these should not be allowed, particularly in tourist areas [...] Besides that, similar illegal activities reduce the value of property in the area.”

This is at best a misleading argument. By ‘illegal’, the mayor clearly meant to say unregulated... in the sense that the impromptu mosque was not covered by a valid permit. This is very different from stating the activity taking place on the premises is automatically illegal. The property in question is used for prayer meetings; regardless of licensing issues, under no circumstances can praying be considered an ‘illegal activity’: a term usually reserved for organised crime.

Other objections concerning logistics – that the place is too small, for instance – may be true: but this doesn’t change the fact that what the applicants are asking for is a venue in which to conduct an activity that is not merely legal, but also a fundamental human right.

If the proposed venue is unsuitable, it is incumbent on the authorities – including the local council – to find an appropriate space for Muslim worshippers to exercise this right. Moreover, it is unreasonable to suggest that the congregation of people in a small space harms tourism. St Paul’s Bay and its surrounding areas – Qawra and Bugibba – are low-rent areas that attract foreign workers and their families. These include Muslims: we cannot continue to ignore this reality.

The freedom to speak

It is not just the local Muslim community which encounters difficulties on account of a fast-changing social reality. In different ways, the much more established Catholic Church is also visibly struggling to cope.

Recently, Archbishop Charles Scicluna was singled out for criticism over his Independence Day homily, which many felt to be politically motivated in its choice of subjects – namely, governance.

Yet it is unclear why the leader of Malta’s largest religious institution, speaking on the occasional Malta’s national day, should not talk freely about a problem that is painfully visible to the rest of the country.

The Archbishop is right to speak as he does from the pulpit. He has the freedom to do so, and so does society have the freedom to say what it wants – which includes to disagree with him, and reject his advice. Nor is there any particular contradiction in the subject matter. The Archbishop is similarly proactive on issues and controversies such as animal welfare and spring hunting, as well as on the deleterious effects of high-rise, and of construction’s effects on the environment. So should he be on the state of governance also.

Nonetheless, it is also true that Scicluna speaks from a weakened position. The advent of divorce, civil unions, gay adoption, the removal of vilification of religion from the statute books, and the erosion of Church authority on court separation proceedings, have collectively defined the limit of the Church’s sphere of influence.

The church over which Scicluna presides does not wield the same power as it did in the 1960s: when most of its influence was focused on an internecine war with the Labour government. Nor is the Archbishop as hampered from speaking his mind as his immediate predecessors.

Scicluna’s vocal ‘incursions’ may therefore bring a breath of fresh air compared to previous, moribund Church leaders, but they also reflect the state of the Maltese Church today: pining for influence among an increasingly secular society.