The limits to integration

For better or for worse, we live in a system of nation states and one of the primary duties of national leaders in such a system is to protect national borders, a duty that has been increasingly undermined

Muslim worshippers at a makeshift mosque in Floriana offered by the Maltese government
Muslim worshippers at a makeshift mosque in Floriana offered by the Maltese government

A local council’s filing of a police report as a consequence of the illegal use of a building was turned into a cause célèbre by a MaltaToday reporter and was the subject of an editorial in this same newspaper entitled ‘The right to practise one’s religion’, with the editor feeling that the council decision “will move Muslims underground”.

If I understood the report correctly, the council did not object to the presence of a mosque in the locality but said simply that “the proposed prayer room was inadequate for worship, and would create a hindrance to public order and increase problems of parking space”, with the mayor declaring that she did not feel it was the responsibility of the council to find a suitable venue for a mosque.

But MaltaToday, which seems to consider itself the first line of defence against a bunch of individuals whose antics could probably be more accurately described as idiotic rather than patriotic, has once again unfurled its banner in defence of the downtrodden, insinuating that the right to practise one’s religion in Malta is in some way under threat. And that, in my humble opinion, is absolute and total rubbish.

The editor of MaltaToday suggests that decisions relating to this matter of a permit for a mosque cannot be left in the hands of local councils, but it is such cavalier disregard for the opinions of real-life situations lived by ordinary citizens that it is leading to populism gaining momentum all over Europe.

As an article in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic indicates, reducing immigration was the main motive behind the Brexit vote and may not have been unrelated to Trump’s electoral triumph. The fact that St Paul’s Bay councillors of all political hues, elected by the locality’s voters as their representatives, were unanimous in their decision should make us want to know more about what caused them to decide in this manner in the first place and not simply write them off as an aberration, as the editor of this newspaper and some of his staff are often inclined to do when reacting to those who do not see eye-to-eye with them. 

Motivated by the desire to discover what lay behind the absence of even one dissenting voice in the St Paul’s Bay Council vote, I determined to look a bit deeper and came across a recent University of Malta Masters Dissertation which focuses on the self-same locality entitled ‘Social Reality and Local Community: An Empirical Investigation of St Paul’s Bay and Environs’. Written by Vincent Galea, it describes the enormous changes which have taken place in this previously sleepy fishing community and favourite summer residence of many of my generation. 

The opinions expressed by members of the older generation in interviews conducted by the author are very negative about Africans, North Africans and ‘Russians’ who were held to be causing “all the damage that the local society is passing through” and he adds that the comments about the first two in particular are “very disheartening”. Interestingly, and perhaps contrary to what one would expect, the opinion of the younger generation is, according to the author, even more negative and much stronger and when “North Africans are mentioned, residents point to their visible clash of culture and religious belief” with “Muslims… viewed as people who want to impose their way of life on others.”

This was particularly evident when a residential flat was turned into a ‘praying centre’. According to the author the centre became the talk of the town and its use caused many disturbances and when the Muslim community started making use of a public space for their weekly prayers the antagonism became even more evident.

Whether to allow a mosque to be established or not should not be the question. All those who are law-abiding citizens of this country as well as others granted leave to be here have rights and duties irrespective of their ethnic background, beliefs, gender and sexual orientation, or other attributes. These rights should be staunchly defended and the duties firmly enforced to ensure that no group erodes the core values which characterize our society.

The fact is that most inhabitants of these islands would probably not want a mosque in their backyard, in the same way that most would not want to be in very close proximity to church bells ringing, but that does not mean that a group of people constituted according to law should not be allowed to have their ‘place of worship’ properly authorized after due process. 

Having said that, there is no doubt that disregarding the impact of the arrival in a relatively short period of time of large numbers of immigrants whose values are considerably at variance with those subscribed to by the host society in a small community like St Paul’s Bay, is a sure recipe for disaster and sets the scene for ugly confrontations which constitute the breeding ground for populism. 


At the end of the day, it is probably all about the size and rate of migrant/refugee flows and there is a widespread feeling that the numbers which have entered Europe in a relatively brief period of time are simply too many. The Germans, with their language’s ability to encapsulate complex situations in one word, call it Überfremdung or ‘overforeignization’, which in English does not sound very elegant but describes the situation very adequately.

Despite the welcome extended to immigrants by many after Merkel’s call, “a large majority of Germans accept immigration and Islam intellectually. But emotionally, not so many,” claims the National Geographic, and the situation seems if anything to be deteriorating, with Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s leading feminist, saying that Germany is “naively importing male violence, sexism and anti-Semitism”. We have to make sure we do not set the scene for the same to happen on our own much more crowded island.

Despite the wishful thinking of some, refugees do not fill in the demographic deficits of an ageing Europe and it is towards a system of controlled immigration that we must look for the workers to fill these gaps. In her first speech to the United Nations, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, called for a reassessment of an asylum system which was originally conceived in 1951 for a simpler and less mobile world, and carelessly expanded in 1967.

Over the last 30 years, countries have been overwhelmed as the number of those deemed ‘refugees’ has multiplied six-fold to 60 million in an age of mass travel. For better or for worse, we live in a system of nation states and one of the primary duties of national leaders in such a system is to protect national borders, a duty that has been increasingly undermined. This does not mean that the Geneva Convention and its humane underpinnings should be suppressed but simply that it needs to be reassessed in the light of new realities.

Prof. Carmel Vassallo is a University of Malta academic