Everybody’s President

The President of the Republic made a disconcerting statement during a radio interview last Saturday.

Here is a loose paraphrase, as quoted in the following day's KullHadd:

"Much as I would like to represent the voice of many people in society, the truth is that I cannot be everybody's president."

According to the same newspaper report, Dr George Abela went on to say that: "the majority of Maltese citizens are Christians"; and that "Maltese identity is rooted in Christian values" (or words to that effect). Oh, and before I forget he also added: "We have to be tolerant of those who do not share our beliefs... but at the same time we cannot deny our faith."

Right. Allow me to congratulate Dr Abela for becoming the first Maltese Head of State to publicly acknowledge that the existence of non-Christian citizens such as myself should henceforth be 'tolerated'... yes, even in an EU member state in 2012.

And how frightfully accommodating of him,  too, not to insist that all such heathens be dragged from their beds in the dead of night, and transported to some State-sponsored death camp somewhere to be exterminated at leisure.

Honestly, Dr Abela, I can't tell you how relieved I am that you will not, after all, be emulating the actions of the Grand Inquisitor of the late 15th century: at whose command all Maltese Jews were forcibly expelled from the island on pain of death.

In fact, I can't help but think: just imagine if Fra' Antonio de la Pena had reasoned the same way as Dr George Abela, way back in 1492. Why, a not-insignificant chunk of the Maltese population would never have been forced to convert to Christianity in the first place. And who knows? These same Maltese citizens would probably still be Jewish today... which says a lot about the supposed 'Christian roots' of Maltese identity: doesn't it, Dr Abela?

And now, if you don't mind: here is my small (and, yes, maybe also illegal) reaction to the rest of the President's statement: starting with the obvious.

"The majority of Maltese are Christians". Hmm. Yes, well, this may even turn out to be true, insofar as assessments of Malta's demographics in the early 21st century go. But do I really need to remind Dr Abela that he is supposed to be the President of ALL the Maltese people... regardless of whether they adhere to majority opinion or not?

Otherwise, by his own definition he will have reduced his own office to that of 'President of the Majority'... which implies that the remaining minority, however small, will be perfectly justified in not acknowledging him as their President at all.

Honestly, now: is this what Dr Abela wants?

And besides: "majorities" tend overwhelmingly to be transient in nature (otherwise, there would hardly be need for regular elections, now would there?) So while there is plenty of reason to accept Dr Abela's appraisal of Malta as a majority Christian nation in 2012... there are a few variables to the equation that warrant special consideration.

One: how extensive is this majority? Two: do present trends indicate that it is growing, or shrinking? Three: if (as I suspect) it is shrinking... how long before it ceases to be a 'majority' at all? At least, vis-a-vis the sum total of all other religious beliefs also represented in the full spectrum of Maltese society... not to mention that small (but almost certainly growing) minority that holds down no religious belief at all?

To the best of my knowledge there are no reliable answers to any of these questions. All we know for certain is that a recent census (conducted by the Catholic Church) revealed that the percentage of Maltese citizens to attend Mass on one particular Sunday stood at a very unimpressive 55%.

Compared to the previous census, conducted a couple of decades earlier, the indication was that this same statistic had dwindled by roughly 10% over 10 years. So if the same trend continues unabated, next year's percentage of Church-going Catholics should theoretically have dropped to only around 45%.

Suddenly, then, it seems we may have to revise popular perceptions of Maltese society... and with them, Dr Abela's assumptions about what 'values' the same society is supposed to reflect. And this in turn raises another small objection: that while people like Dr Abela (among many, many others) are very quick to buy wholesale into the national mythology of Malta as a 'quintessentially Christian nation', there has to date been no serious attempt to actually find out how much of this mythology is actually TRUE.

Why not, I hear you ask? Well, perhaps because it is simply not in the interest of a dominant section of society to be exposed as less pervasive than previously believed. Perhaps because there are vested interests in keeping alive the selfsame misconceptions about our national identity: vested interests that have already experienced a severe setback in the form of last year's divorce referendum (in which a distinct majority defied a very clear edict by the same Catholic Church, in a modern reinvention of Ruzar Briffa's classic motif: "U il-kotra qamet f'daqqa...").

Nor is this the only questionable myth that President Abela has (unaccountably) taken it upon himself to perpetuate. In fact, religion and mythology are so deeply intertwined as part of the fabric of Maltese identity, that I remember a time - around the early 1990s - when University students walked out of a history lecture en masse when the lecturer (Prof. Godfrey Wettinger) exploded their cherished myth of Malta's 'unbroken Christian tradition dating all the way back to St Paul.'

At the time I found it distressing that university students (of all people) would be appreciative of education only so long as it never rally challenged their own romantic (and patently fanciful) notions of Maltese history . But there, in a nutshell, it is the entire dilemma laid bare for all to see. Like their future President, those students were evidently more attuned to fantasy than to fact.

Bearing all this in mind, I find it disheartening - though not exactly surprising - that the Constitutionally-appointed guardian of Malta's Republican values should immerse himself so totally in the widespread (but woefully false) mythology of Malta as a 'nation built on Christian values'.

But that he should also pronounce what is effectively a political statement based on that same fallacy - excluding and alienating a section of the very society the same President is supposed to represent - is simply astounding.

For one thing Dr Abela's remark is patently untrue: as a cursory glance at Maltese culture, folklore and history (not to mention our language, with its tell-tale traces of Islam still evidenced in daily usage today) will immediately confirm. For another, his words on that radio programme were divisive to an upsetting degree; and also uncalled for, given that the Presidency is about the only aspect of our country's institutional makeup that should not 'belong' to any one category of citizen at the expense of all others.

Meanwhile, I feel I ought to remind Dr Abela that this is not exactly the first time that he has gone out of his way to present himself as the President of Malta's Christian community to the exclusion of everyone else. He did much the same thing in his welcome address to Pope Benedict during his recent state visit (on the same President's invitation, please note). Elsewhere, his recent declared intention to indulge in missionary work in Peru raised eyebrows for much the same reason: compounding as it did an apparent national inability to distinguish between the supposedly separate dominions of State and Church.

Meanwhile, you can hardly blame a secularist like myself for reacting with concern and even alarm, when the same President suddenly turns around and announces his intention to 'revise' the Constitution. What sort of revision does Dr Abela have in mind, exactly? Judging by his own comments on that radio interview, it certainly doesn't look like his grand plan is to transform that divisive and defective document into something we can all (Christians and non-Christians alike) proudly embrace as a reflection of our own national identity.

And all this leads me to seriously question whether there is even one aspect of our country's entire institutional composition that actually performs the functions it was originally set up to perform. In the Presidency's case, those functions include representing Maltese society as the sum of all its parts: and this, Dr Abela now tells us, he cannot actually do. 

My answer to that is really quite simple, though it may not be a popular thing to say.

If Dr Abela truly feels he cannot be 'Everybody's President'... then quite frankly he should not be anyone's President at all.