A Mosque too far?

… but never – not even once – was this concern with ‘increased traffic’, and ‘worsening air pollution’, sufficient for the Planning Authority to actually withhold the permit

Transport Malta has shot down plans for the development of a mosque on industrial land in Luqa, 150 metres away from Runway 23
Transport Malta has shot down plans for the development of a mosque on industrial land in Luqa, 150 metres away from Runway 23

In a way, I more or less understand the dilemma faced by the Luqa local council, in its ongoing ‘crusade’ to prevent the construction of a new Mosque in its locality.

For even if it does, at a glance, resemble a typical case of ‘Maltese NMIMBY-ism’ (that’s not a typo, by the way. The acronym stands for: ‘NO MUSLIMS IN MY BACK YARD!’)…

Well, let’s just say that the official objections – as opposed to the real ones they seem to be masking – are not exactly what you would call ‘frivolous’.

But first, a little background. Last January, the Planning Authority received an application “to build a new place of worship [in the Luqa industrial estate] with ancillary facilities, including bathrooms, meeting rooms, administrative offices, and parking at basement level.”

In other words, a mosque: which (if the permit is granted, naturally) would become only the second such edifice to grace the Maltese islands, since the first was constructed in Paola back in the 1970s. [Note: obviously, that doesn’t include all the mosques that must have existed here during the Arab occupation of 800 – 1070; and even long afterwards… as evidenced by street names such as ‘Triq Mesquita’ in, um, ‘Mdina’…).

But let’s not resuscitate long-dormant controversies about Maltese history. Fact remains that – as of right now, anyway - there is only one official mosque, anywhere on the islands… and it was built at a time when Malta’s Muslim population was even lower than the ‘approximately 6,000’ estimated in 2010 (and which, unaccountably, remains the official statistic quoted on Wikipedia, to this very day.)

The latest census of December 2022, on the other hand, places Malta’s current Muslim population at ‘somewhere between 6 and 7% of the population’…. and bearing in mind that Malta’s population now hovers at around 550,000 [not counting, please note, the many thousands of foreign residents who are either here illegally, or on temporary work visas]… well, even someone as mathematically-challenged as myself, can easily work out – with the help of a calculator, of course – that there must be AT THE VERY LEAST some 35-to-40,000 Muslims, residing in Malta today.

Now: that’s an awful lot of people, to physically fit inside a single, 1970s-built mosque (which, unless I am much mistaken, has a maximum capacity of around 800.) Leaving side that it’s ‘a tragedy of Hillsborough proportions’, just waiting to happen – seriously, though: has anyone paused to consider the possible consequences, if a fire were to break out in Malta’s only mosque, during a busy service? – it’s also kind of, well… ‘mathematically improbable’, at the end of the day.

To put that into perspective: if we were to take the same ratio – whereby 7% of the population, only gets given one (1) measly little mosque – and apply it to the percentage of Maltese people who identify as ‘Catholics’…

Well, the first question we’d have to ask ourselves, is: how many of those are there, to even begin with?

Once again, most online sources tend to be misleading. Sticking to Wikipedia, for example: it merely repeats the blanket statement that ‘Malta is 98% Catholic’… a percentage that would (paradoxically) also have to include at least some of the ‘6 to 7%’ that we’ve only just established are actually… erm, Muslim, remember?

So - no offence, or anything - but I don’t attach very much weight to that ‘98%’ estimate, myself. And neither, it seems, does the Catholic Church: which last year published the far more plausible statistics, that around 40% of Maltese Catholics attend Mass every Sunday; and around 74%, ‘at least once a month’.

Now: in the interests of striking a realistic balance, I have decided to go with a rough median of ‘65%’: that is to say, approximately 360,000 practising Catholics… which not only corresponds with the (proven) statistic of ‘one Church for every 1,000 Catholics’; but also with the widely-held view that “we have one Church, for every day of the year”.

Ah, but apply the same ratio used for Muslims to those 65%, and… how many churches would Maltese Catholics be left with, to actually worship in?

Here, I have to admit that the calculation did prove beyond my own capabilities – even armed with a calculator – so I had to ask a friend to work it out for me over the phone. Believe it or not, the answer is… 9.28. (Yeah, I know: ‘65 divided by 7’. DUH!)

But still, you heard right. Applying the same yardstick to Catholics, as to Muslims: Malta would have no more than NINE churches – oh, and maybe one little Madonna niche, to account for the remaining 0.28% - to accommodate all the needs of its approximately 360,000 practising Catholics.

And those needs, I need hardly add, are not limited only to Sunday Mass… but also to weddings; funerals; First Holy communions; confirmations, and – last but not least - the annual ‘Visit of the Seven Churches’, every Easter!

My, what an adventure THAT would turn out to be, with only nine churches to actually choose from. Which two shall we leave out this year, I wonder?  And besides: what would even happen, in practice, if all 360,000 Maltese Catholics were to try and cram themselves into the same seven churches, in the space of a single day?

I honestly shudder to imagine what even just the traffic would be like, every Good Friday: let alone, the tens of thousands of people who would probably end up dying of asphyxia; or crushed in the mad stampede to avoid suffocation…

But, well, there you have it. There’s a perfectly valid reason, why a Muslim community that now numbers around 35,000 (at the very minimum) would apply for a second Mosque, to add to the only one they’ve got. (Apart, of course, from the teenie-weenie little detail that ‘Freedom of Religion’ also happens to be just as much of a fundamental human right for Muslims, as it is for Catholics…)

But back to the application: which has now been greenlighted by all the relevant entities – including the project case officer, and also the Malta Transport Authority (which had earlier objected, on ‘air traffic safety’ grounds)…

… leaving us with just the Luqa local council, to resist the application: supported, it must be said, by what seems to be a sizeable chunk of Luqa’s (and not just Luqa’s) population.

But this only brings us back to that dilemma I mentioned earlier. On one level, it is very easy - TOO easy, in fact – to simply dismiss the council’s objections as ‘thinly-disguised Islamophobia’. (Though the same cannot be said for most of the online comments. There’s nothing ‘thinly’ – or even ‘thickly’ – ‘disguised’ about any of those…)

Because on the surface: the objections themselves are actually quite valid, you know… yes, even when you factor in the possibility that they’re probably ‘fake’ objections, to masquerade the council’s true intentions (let’s face it: you can hardly write: ‘NO MUSLIMS IN MY BACKYARD!’  as your official reason for submitting a Planning Authority objection… can you now?)

So let’s take a closer look. As far as I can see, there are only two arguments, to speak of: one, “In a statement on Friday, the council said the approval of this application would cause residents to suffer ‘extreme air pollution’ due to the expected increase in traffic...”

And two (words to the effect of): “Why us? Why Luqa? Why not somewhere else… somewhere ‘up north’… like St Paul’s Bay, for instance? After all, there are far more Muslims living there, than here…”

Hmmm. On second thoughts, I’ve decided to overlook Objection 2 after all (if nothing else, because it reminds me uncomfortably of that harrowing moment in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’… when Winston Smith suddenly blurts out: ‘Why me? Why not her? DO IT TO JULIA…!’)

So let’s stick only to the one about ‘traffic’ and ‘air pollution’. Even the statistics I just quoted myself, amply attest to the validity of that objection. It is, in fact, a mathematical certainty: the opening of a new mosque in Luqa will indeed ‘increase the overall traffic’ (and with it, air pollution) to that locality…

Then again, however: the same objection applies just as much to every single one of Malta’s 360 churches (as can easily be confirmed by anyone who’s ever tried to find a parking-space in Sliema – and I imagine Luqa, too - on a Sunday morning).

Much more poignantly, however: it also applies to all the hundreds of permit applications (some of which for projects infinitely larger – and far more polluting – than any number of ‘new mosques in Luqa’) that have been APPROVED by the Planning Authority, in recent years: in most cases, against the express objections of both local council, and residents… and in some, even against the case officer’s recommendations.

I’ve left myself with too little space for a complete list: but it would include the Tigne’ Project in Sliema; the DB hotel extension in Pembroke; the skyscrapers at Mriehel… all those - and many, many more – had met with exactly the same objections, in their own day…

… but never – not even once – was this concern with ‘increased traffic’, and ‘worsening air pollution’, sufficient for the Planning Authority to actually withhold the permit.

Ah, but then along comes a solitary application by Malta’s Muslim community, for a development that: a) serves a vital (and sorely-needed) social function; b) represents a fundamental human right, to at least 35,000 people, and c) wouldn’t even cause a fraction of the inconvenience, that all those PA-approved projects inflicted upon other localities…

And: gee, I don’t know. How do YOU think the PA will decide, in a month’s time?