A time for reflection

If there are Islamic extremists among us preying on the vulnerabilities of young people, the intelligence services must sharpen their focus and become more attuned to what is happening within Malta’s Islamic community

The arraignment of seven Syrian nationals last week on terrorism-related charges raises several issues that require reflection. 

The men, aged between 21 and 27, were arrested by the police in an operation that also involved Europol, the European law enforcement agency.  

The police accused the men of disseminating extremist messages inciting and glorifying terrorism, and recruiting or attempting to encourage others to commit terrorist acts. 

They were also accused of teaching others how to use explosives and firearms, and attempting to travel to the EU to take part in terrorist acts. 

During the arraignment, no details emerged of what the young men actually did or were planning on doing. Although the understanding was that the men are Islamic extremists, the lack of accompanying fanfare does give rise to the suspicion that the charges may have been trumped up. 

Jihadist terrorism is not a phenomenon that has featured prominently in the annual reports of the Security Service, so one would have expected a police conference or statement at a political level if a budding underground terrorist network was indeed uncovered. However, there was none of this. 

Unfortunately, we will have to wait for the start of the compilation of evidence to understand the full picture a bit better. 

On the other hand, if the charges are a true reflection of what was going on then the issue cannot go unnoticed. 

If there are Islamic extremists among us preying on the vulnerabilities of young people, the intelligence services must sharpen their focus and become more attuned to what is happening within Malta’s Islamic community. 

To be absolutely clear; not all Muslims are terrorists and it would be a very big mistake to think so. It will also be a mistake to confine the word terrorism to Islamic jihadists - the Anders Breivik case in Norway is one such instance of terrorism perpetrated by someone unconnected to Islam. 

The vast majority of Muslims, some of who are even citizens of this country, are peace-loving individuals with stable jobs and families. And like the rest of society, some within this minority group are also bad apples but definitely not terrorists. 

What we are talking about here are radicalised people whose only intent is on causing harm on a massive scale to innocent people and not your average drug dealer, or your ordinary thieve. These are people inspired by radical Islamic thoughts that misrepresent the very same religion they profess to uphold - an absolute minority within a minority. 

It is of concern if such radicalised individuals are present in Malta and even more worrying if radicalisation is actually happening here. 

Malta’s situation can in no way be equated to what has been happening in other European countries where youths from poor neighbourhoods find social refuge in radicalised communities. But it would be short-sighted of us if we think that Malta is immune to such ills. This is why the security services still need to exercise vigilance. 

The Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit (FIAU) must also enhance its monitoring of suspected terrorism financing passing through Malta. The country cannot allow itself to be used as a conduit for illicit financing of organisations that use the guise of religion to perpetrate horrible crimes on a mass scale. 

But more importantly, a broader discussion needs to take place with the leaders of the Muslim community in Malta to better understand what is happening. This dialogue must also be had at a political level to ensure that Muslims in Malta, irrespective of their citizenship status, are not discriminated against. 

But this dialogue must also promote respect for personal freedoms protected by the Constitution so that individuals within the Muslim community are able to exercise their rights, even if they depart from Islamic social norms. 

This is particularly important for people who have not lived in Malta all their lives and come here to work or end up here as refugees. These people must know what is legally accepted and what is not; and what their rights are. To this effect, the Maltese authorities must also engage with these migrants in a process of acculturation that also respects diversity. These individuals may not have strong attachments to long-established domestic communities and they can easily be abused, exploited and ostracised from society. 

This may be new territory in a country that has only recently started appreciating the diversity within it. The authorities would do well to seek the expertise of countries that have a long tradition of dealing with multicultural societies. 

Concerns must not be brushed under the carpet. But while emphasis must be made on security, it is not the be all and end all. The issue must be tackled from a social aspect as well to ensure that young people do not feel the need to seek refuge in the hands of radical people whose only intention is to harm innocent people.