A Muslim from Qormi | Mario Farrugia Borg

Labour will field the first ever Maltese Muslim to contest the European elections. Is Mario Farrugia Borg a token for a minority vote, or can he offer a national flavour?

Mario Farrugia Borg: “I stand for the poor, the weak and the emarginated and those who are at risk of being left behind.”
Mario Farrugia Borg: “I stand for the poor, the weak and the emarginated and those who are at risk of being left behind.”

Mario Farrugia Borg is clean-shaven, contrary to the usual trimmed beard that for some years now was a somewhat characterising attribute of the man. It's two weeks since the 43-year-old became a father for the third time, and as I enter his campaign office in hometown Qormi, I spot a framed MaltaToday cartoon which depicted the bearded Farrugia Borg waving an EU flag, adorned with Islamic crescents instead of stars.

His health sense of self-irony certainly exhibits a rare trait in Maltese politics. "Well I had shaved my beard for quite some time before that cartoon," he says jokingly. A Muslim convert well-known for his activism in the local Islamic community, Farrugia Borg tactfully answers questions on faith and politics, making a clear distinction between the two, opposing Imam Mohamed El Sadi's proposal for a referendum on same-sex unions and insisting his party has a clear electoral mandate for its civil union law.

And yet, he awkwardly refuses to pronounce what his stance would be in a hypothetical vote on same-sex unions in the European Parliament. While highlighting his left-wing credentials, he says he puts the national interest before ideology when faced with questions on irregular migration, which he insists on describing as "illegal immigration", the taxation of financial transactions as proposed by Labour's socialist partners in Europe, and giving preferential treatment to the rich in the award of Maltese citizenship.

Farrugia Borg, who works in the Prime Minister's secretariat, reveals that he had been asked to contest next May's European elections by party leader and 'employer' Joseph Muscat. "This was never part of my plans... Sincerely, when the PM asked me to contest I was surprised. But after I thought about it I concluded that it was an opportunity for me to raise those issues which are close to my heart."

Unlike many candidates, who base their European platform on local issues, Farrugia Borg puts his candidature in a European context. For him the major issue of these elections is the need for a "social Europe". 

"I stand for the poor, the weak and the emarginated and those who are at risk of being left behind... it is these people who are suffering because of austerity policies advocated by conservative governments."

For Farrugia Borg, the greatest ideological divide is between those who favour austerity, which penalises the poor, and those advocating a more social Europe.

In a speech before the general election, Farrugia Borg referred to his two conversions - first from Catholicism to Islam and the other one from the Nationalist Party to the Labour Party. "Until a few years ago I never imagined I would do this," he said in a heartfelt speech to the Labour Party conference.

Now he downplays his pro-Nationalist past, insisting that he came from a family with a Mintoffian background. "I am more like the prodigal son who returned back to his family than someone who changed sides. I was brought up in a family which had a big photo of Mintoff in the kitchen."

He became disillusioned with Labour during his teenage years. "At that age one is prone to rebelling against one's own background and against what one perceives to be wrong. The country needed a change in government in 1987 because things were not right. But my political philosophy was always leftist and now I am back to where I belong."

When asked about his conversion to Islam, he immediately notes that his belief in Islam is as relevant to politics as Christianity is for politicians adhering to that belief. "Are Christian politicians questioned on their religious beliefs?" he asks, suggesting that the question would not be asked to an otherwise Christian politician.

He acknowledges that his values are obviously influenced by his religion, but most of these values are universal ones common to most religions including Christianity. "These include love towards one's neighbours and not doing to others what you don't wish them to do to you."

But unlike modern Christianity, Islam does propose a body of law regulating community life enshrined in Sharia law, which is imposed to varying degrees in a number of countries with a Muslim majority. Farrugia Borg describes "sharia" as a "complete set of law which regulates things like family life, inheritance and investment: and acknowledges that for Muslims, "the legislator enshrining this body of law is not human but the divinity."

But he excludes imposing such a body of law on people who do not believe in its divine inspiration, even if he seems to justify the imposition of Sharia law in countries where the vast majority is willing to accept it. "Sharia exists only in those countries where people judged by it believe in the divine origin of this law and also want to be judged by it."

So it is inconceivable for Farrugia Borg to have Sharia law in Malta, simply because the absolute majority does not believe in its divine origin. And neither does he with introducing it for Muslim minorities as proposed by some Islamists in Europe. "God forbid that we have different laws for different religious groups. All people are equal and should be judged according to the same law."

He also points out that the Maltese law does not in any way infringe on Muslims. "Alcohol is legal in Malta but nobody forces you to drink it," he cites as an example.

But what is Farrugia Borg's position on same-sex unions and adoptions by same-sex couples?

"Both Catholicism and Islam are against relationships between people of the same sex but I also strongly believe in the principle that a political party cannot impose a religious belief on segments of society who do not adhere to these beliefs."

So how would he vote in a resolution in the European Parliament recommending the introduction of same-sex unions in countries where this is not allowed? "I would have to see... one has to see the position of the European grouping in which I will belong and whether a free vote will be granted."

I continue to press Farrugia Borg on this point but he refutes to state his position. When asked about his position on gay adoptions he points out that single gay people can already adopt. "The ideal scenario is that children are raised by their natural parents, but this is not always possible. One has to see what is the next best scenario.  What is important is that the best interests of the children are always safeguarded."

He disagrees with Imam Mohammed El Sadi's call for a referendum on same-sex unions. "I disagree because Labour has a mandate to introduce civil unions and I also disagree with referenda which may infringe on the rights of minorities."

Farrugia Borg controversially equates a referendum on civil unions with the proposed referendum on spring hunting, to which he is also opposed. "The majority of people are not hunters and should not impose on a minority."

As a Maltese convert, Farrugia Borg stands out in the Muslim community, and he points out how irked he is by the common assumption that adherents to non-Catholic religions are necessarily foreign.

"Becoming a Muslim was a personal decision dictated by my conscience and does not affect my identity as a Maltese," he says, pointing out how he does not feel discriminated against because of his beliefs. "I believe that if you respect others, others respect you. Surely I cannot say am discriminated when I form part of the personal secretariat of the Prime Minister. When I used to work with a commercial bank, they even arranged my working hours on Friday to give me time to pray."

But he claims that discrimination against fellow Muslim converts, especially Maltese women who wear the veil, is widespread. "People automatically assume that they are foreigners and pass disparaging remarks against them, thinking that they are not understanding them."

Even Maltese children with Arabic surnames suffer from discrimination. "I heard a case of an insurance company which refused to insure someone simply because he had an Arabic surname."

But is Farrugia Borg contesting simply to attract the growing Muslim vote for Labour? "I am Maltese and my intention is to attract the vote of the Maltese. People should vote for me for what I stand for, not for my religion."

But he admits that his religion could endear him to a particular electoral niche. "But surely my candidature is not meant to attract an exclusive segment of the population," he adds.

As we move from matters of faith to the other hot issues, Farrugia Borg states that he also agrees with the government's proposal to sell Maltese citizenship for €650,000, and immediately hits out at me for describing the scheme as a sale of citizenship. "This is an Individual Investor's Programme through which people who pass the required due diligence will be investing €650,000 in Malta."

He insists that Malta has not reinvented the wheel "and there are many countries who have similar schemes even if the price varies."

I immediately challenge Farrugia to mention which countries he is referring to and he replies in a generic way. "Well there are other countries in Caribbean and even in Europe... we're not reinventing the wheel," he says, dismissing scaremongering on criminals acquiring Maltese citizenship, and that "it is easy" to check with Interpol just by submitting a name and passport number.

He lambastes the Opposition for its contradictory stance on the IIP. "They were first in favour but wanted the scheme to include more investment and then they said they are against in principle."

He criticises the PN for criticising the scheme abroad, and displaying an insular political trait. "Even if you disagree on an issue at the local, you should never wash your dirty linen abroad.  This is the same thing they used to do in the 1980s," he says.

"If one is against awarding citizenship in this way, one should be opposed to granting citizenship on other grounds and grant it solely to people born in Malta. Using the same argument, one should not grant citizenship to anyone who marries a Maltese person."

My major objection to offering citizenship to those who afford €650,0000 is based on the fact that while persons who marry a Maltese person are only eligible for citizenship after five years, and people who have worked and paid taxes in Malta are only awarded citizenship after a long time residing here, others can effectively buy a fast-track passport.

Farrugia answers my leftist critique by offering the standard "national interest" reply. "Every country has to take decisions based on its best interest."

He then anticipates my question on whether this contradicts his posturing as a leftist. "You may well remind me that I have just declared my leftist principles and my belief in a social Europe, but we should not forget that money for social spending has to come from somewhere. Moreover, I am sure that the money from the scheme will not be used to build a new parliament but will be dedicated to social projects directed to help the most vulnerable, things linked to education, housing and job creation."

Can't one achieve the same aim through redistribution of wealth through taxation, instead of selling citizenship to the rich?

"Our priority is to generate wealth. That was our platform before the election.  Pumping money in the economy is the best way to secure economic growth. This is why the Nationalists are against it, because they are afraid that it would enable us to generate wealth for the country."

I point out that the Party of European Socialists favours a tax on financial transactions, which is opposed by the local Labour party. In their Alternative Vision for Europe, the European Socialists promise that they "will fight to bring in common company tax rules to simplify the tax law jungle." The European Socialists also refer to the "S&D Group's tough stance on the financial transaction tax" which is described as a "vital way to curb the excesses of financial institutions, ensure they pay their fair share of tax and ease the tax burden on the public".

"This is a clear case where Labour puts the national interest first and foremost. This tax would not be in our best interest. It is an unfair tax because what would happen is that investors in this [financial services] sector will simply flee to those countries where they pay less taxes."

While Labour supports a quick path to citizenship for the super-rich, back in July Joseph Muscat was actively considering pushing back a number of asylum seekers back to Libya. "At the moment we considered everything, but the only pushbacks ever to take place happened under a Nationalist government when people were sent directly back to Eritrea during the Fenech Adami administration," Farrugia Borg says, repeating the mantra now adopted by Labour.

What counts for Farrugia Borg is that Labour, unlike Nationalist governments, has succeeded in inserting Malta's migration challenge on the EU agenda. "We are saying it clearly to other European countries, that we cannot face the problem alone and we cannot deal with the influx of hundreds and thousands of immigrants."

For Farrugia Borg, who is married to a Moroccan-born wife, the whole issue boils down to numbers and has nothing to do with racism or xenophobia, which he unreservedly condemns. "As the Prime Minister pointed out, integration will only work if the numbers are brought under control. To have integration you must have sustainable numbers. You cannot have thousands of migrants. "

To prove his point he compares the integration of migrants in Balzan and Marsa. "I recently attended a seminar where the mayors of Marsa and Balzan spoke as if they lived in two entirely different planets. While the Balzan mayor spoke about a high level of integration and the good relationship between Maltese families and immigrant families, the Marsa mayor spoke about the Maltese being terrorized. The sheer difference is in numbers. In Balzan there are 150 migrants and in Marsa there are 1,500."

He also underlines his argument by insisting that that one "should call a spade a spade, and call the phenomenon illegal immigration."

I immediately point out that immigrants rescued on the high seas and who seek asylum in Malta are not committing any crime and therefore the term "illegal" simply reinforces the kind of prejudice which makes integration even more difficult.

"The fact is that you can only enter a country legally by passing through customs and having one's passport signed. Entering Malta on a boat is an illegal act."

But Farrugia admits that if he were himself a father in Somalia or Eritrea, he would do exactly the same illegal act to offer a better future to his family. He also points out that nobody takes the risk of crossing the dangerous seas without being forced to so by circumstances.

But concretely what can Malta achieve more than it has already achieved, in view of the opposition by a number of member states to the idea of burden sharing?

Farrugia Borg insists that the first priority should be for Europe to invest in Europe so that Africans do not have to leave their homeland.

"We should not forget that in the 1950s many Maltese who emigrated to Australia and other countries could not stay here because the country did not offer them a future. It was only thanks to the attraction of investment under Mintoff, that emigration stopped."

Farrugia Borg's more short-term proposal is to establish a UNHCR office in Libya through which asylum claims can be processed in that country, and successful candidates would be able to cross to Europe safely and legally, and divided between member states according to a still inexistent burden sharing agreement.

I immediately point out that Libya is in chaos and cannot be regarded as a safe place for migrants. "That's why it is in our interest that stability is restored in this country.  For if we achieve this aim we would be stopping the dangerous voyages taking place in the Mediterranean."