Redefining the national identity | Sara Ezabe

Law student Sara Ezabe is one of 30 honorees recognised by Forbes for their role in influencing law and policy in Europe. Her campaign ‘Redefining us’ was prompted by local reactions to her wearing the ‘hijab’ (Muslim headscarf) in Malta... and aims to challenge a culture of fear directed at Muslims in general

Before the interview, I read an article you wrote last June about the pre-electoral campus debate.  You argued that the presence of a far-right party (Moviment Patrijotti Maltin) “speaks volumes about the failure of all political parties to address the rights of minorities in our country.” Yet MPM got only a handful of votes in that election... and it is debatable to what extent it really represents typical Maltese attitudes towards Muslims. In your own experience, how racist is Malta towards its Muslim population?

The way I see it, even the fact that we use the word ‘racism’ – as if Islam was ‘a race’ - is a problem. Islam is not a race. I myself believe there is only one human race: but the real danger is that, if we look upon religion as a ‘race’ issue, or an ethnicity issue, then it would follow that a Maltese person of a different religion would be regarded as ‘not Maltese’. That, to me, is a problem in itself. We talk about ‘racism’, but ‘Islamophobia’ is never really spoken about. We speak about discrimination in general, but there are different kinds of discrimination. Hate speech, especially online, is a very big problem...

You have, in fact, been on the receiving end of a lot of online hate speech in recent years. But while the comments are painful to read, it remains a fact that Malta has passed anti-hate speech legislation. This sort of behaviour is illegal here... so isn’t it a case that action is being taken against hate speech in Malta?

Hate speech is a crime, but it’s not easy to take criminal action against it. I don’t understand why you have to actually go to the police station to file a written report: when hate speech is conducted openly online, and the police can easily access the internet themselves...


But do you expect the police to be scouring the internet for hate speech? Surely a complaint has to be made, for action to be taken....

Discrimination happens in Malta: it is a reality, and it should be discussed. You cannot discuss discrimination in Malta by pointing fingers at other countries. That is an excuse to avoid the discussion...

Yes, but when I tried to draw the police’s attention to online hate speech directed at me... that’s what I was told. That I have to go to the station and file a written report. Why? I don’t want to say that ‘I don’t trust the authorities’... but these are personal things, and every person has a different opinion on it. Even if the police, in their administrative capacity, are trained not to be biased... you don’t know what you will be faced with. It’s not just me, by the way. Other people fear reporting hate speech for the same reason. They don’t feel comfortable making a report. That is another problem: most of the mechanisms that exist are not actually being used. This emerges even from research by other organisations, such as the People For Change Foundation. There is also the issue of jurisdiction that has cropped up recently: if it’s someone foreign writing hate speech, it is difficult for the Maltese authorities to intervene...


Implicit in many of these hate comments is the view (still evidently widespread) that ‘Maltese identity’ somehow precludes being Muslim. As a Maltese Muslim, how do you respond to arguments that this country somehow belongs (or should belong) to one particular religion and/or cultural mindset?

The main problem with far right groups claiming to be ‘Christian’, is that personally, I don’t think Christianity actually preaches these values. Discriminating against someone is clearly not in line with Christian beliefs. So even the fact that this organisation [MPM] claims to be ‘patriotic’ is in itself controversial. Not to point fingers at that particular organisation all the time... but they are the most vocal in this regard.


Coming back to your election debate article... MPM were not the only party at that debate. You also criticised the other parties – especially Labour and PN  – for generally avoiding the topic altogether. Would you agree that mainstream political parties are afraid of broaching this issue for fear of losing votes?

I was actually pleased that the Prime Minister made an official statement, on Twitter, in support of my anti-hate speech campaign this week. I have won other awards before, but it has always been very difficult to get recognition locally. For instance, I have received private support from both parties, but never directly a public acknowledgement. And that’s important... not for my sake, but for the sake of actually standing up and saying ‘Listen: this is wrong’. And not just ignoring it, and letting it happen. And the same thing is happening with integration in general. The general attitude is: ‘figure it out yourselves’. There is no adequate policy dealing with it; it’s always being discussed, but nothing ever happens on the ground. Even when researching the organisations and institutions involved... there are no specific reports about Islamophobia, for instance. Everything falls under the category of ‘racism’, or ‘discrimination’ in general. So I feel there is a misconception everywhere: even among the highest authorities of Malta, which are supposed to be informed... even about policy, etc.


Let’s talk a little about the difference between ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’. There are many things that happen in Islamic countries - public executions, flogging, treatment of women, homophobia, etc. – that people from different cultures find very difficult to digest. Is it ‘Islamophobic’ to express those sentiments in words? Is it ‘hate speech’ to criticise a country like (for instance) Saudi Arabia over its very public human rights violations?

I think it comes from the underlying fear – that’s why the word ‘phobia’ is part of Islamophobia. There is an element of fear. And the fact that there is no clear roadmap of where this is all heading... just fear, fear, fear... is obviously problematic. To have a discussion, you need to have a clear concept of what Islam is... rather than just discussing individual things that happen in certain Islamic countries. One of the comments I often get, for instance, is: ‘Why do you do this here? Why don’t you do it in Saudi Arabia?’ But why should I do it in Saudi Arabia? I’m not from Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia is not the only Islamic state. People tend to equate ‘Islam’ with an individual country, without knowledge of the fact Islam is much broader and vaster than that. It is very difficult to have a discussion under those circumstances. People are often more interested in just pointing fingers at human rights violations in other countries, so as to cover up what rights are being breached right here in this country. Discrimination happens in Malta: it is a reality, and it should be discussed. You cannot discuss discrimination in Malta by pointing fingers at other countries. That is an excuse to avoid the discussion...


At the same time, however, ‘discrimination’ has a legal definition that goes beyond hate speech. In pre-Civil Rights America there was segregation, for instance: blacks and whites went to different schools, sat in different parts of the bus, etc... all enforced through legislation. Do you see anything similar in Malta? Are Muslims institutionally discriminated against here: on the workplace, at school or university, in terms of salaries, or opportunities...?

I think the fact that racism and Islamophobia are still here means that they are institutionalised. As I understand it, ‘institutionalised’ means that there are people within institutions who do not have knowledge of what is going on, and therefore are not taking clear action – providing guidelines, policies, and so on. That is already part of the problem. As a result, we have people aged 16, 17, who have gone through the entire education process, yet are still coming up with these mentalities. We have even had university lecturers, such as Stephen Florian, who have made Islamophobic, racist and homophobic remarks. These people speak on behalf of an institution. So yes, I do feel it is institutionalised in Malta.


OK, but we’re still on the level of expressing opinions (however controversial). What I meant was: is it harder for Muslims to find a job in Malta, for instance? Is there discrimination within the employment sector, or similar areas?

Our failure to properly integrate all members of society is holding us back, and it can only result in the realisation of people’s fears. Because at the end of the day, if people are not integrated, obviously there will be more extremism, not less

When I was carrying out research, employment was one of the categories I looked into. There is no clear reporting of people who were discriminated against because they were Muslim... or, for instance, because they wear the headscarf. However, two recent judgments by the European Court of Human Rights – which are being discussed all over Europe – have, in my opinion, created a loophole whereby Muslims can legally be discriminated against. The judgement ruled that it is permissible to have policy banning any form of clothing or symbols that can be identified with any religion or ideology at all... and in practice, this means that employers can deny employment to someone just because they wear the headscarf. The policy would have no effect on non-Muslims, but it would affect a prospective Muslim employee. So how can people be expected to successfully integrate, if such policies exist? Because at the end of the day, it’s like taking part of your identity away. And I think, in the long-term, it would increase the fear. If you work in an environment where other employees wear the headscarf, it will become normal over time. But if we’re always repressing, and creating a sterile environment where no one has the freedom even to wear whatever they like... so that nobody gets offended... it would create a much bigger fear in the long term.


But isn’t it also true that Muslims tend to take offence at non-Muslim religious symbols?   There have been cases – maybe not in Malta, but certainly in other parts of Europe - where Muslims have objected to crucifixes in classrooms, for instance...

But there is a problem even with that. We tend to single out only the most extreme of cases; and very often without any real knowledge of what’s going on. I go to schools and seminars, for example, and I talk to students and teachers, and I get asked this kind of question a lot. They bring up the issue of ham in schools, or the crucifix... and I tell them, ‘Do you know that the person who first complained about the crucifix in schools in Italy was an atheist, not a Muslim?’ No one knows. It was actually an atheist mother who opposed the crucifix in Italian classrooms. Then, regarding the issue of ham sandwiches... people saw and reacted to what the MPM said; but everything that came afterwards – the ministerial statements, etc. – were all ignored. The ministry came out with a statement saying that Muslims never complained about ham in schools. It was actually something that happened in a church, and not in a school at all. There was complete confusion. All the same: I am not negating the fact that there are Muslims who are extreme. But then again, extremism exists everywhere. If you look at America, there are Christian extremists, too. We have to be careful not to lump everyone in the same basket.  But the main problem, even in this issue, remains the lack of integration. This failure to properly integrate all members of society is holding us back, and it can only result in the realisation of people’s fears. Because at the end of the day, if people are not integrated, obviously there will be more extremism, not less. This emerged clearly even from cases of terrorism in Europe, involving second-generation people who – like me – come from mixed parentage. In one case, the person’s mother was French, and the father was Moroccan. When speaking about their son’s terrorist act, they said that their child had never felt integrated... and was therefore attracted to extremist ideology, and joined ISIS.  So I think it’s clear that, if we continue to ignore the situation, and let it simply develop by itself... we will be faced with people’s worst fears.


Meanwhile, there is a tendency to think of this entrenched suspicion of Muslims as something pertaining to older generations, who remember a time when Maltese society was, in fact, very homogenous. Things have changed since then (on campus this morning, for example, I noticed several female students wearing headscarves)... but have the recent demographic changes had any effect on perceptions of Muslims among younger generations?

The fact that MPM has a ‘youth branch’ is, I think, indicative: it shows that the attitude is something that is still with us. I feel that there is sometimes a distinction between students at university, and others who may have left school earlier and are already in the employment sector. I have worked, and I am a student too, so I have experienced both situations. At university, I feel quite safe: no one has ever come up to me and been openly discriminatory on campus. I do get comments all the time, but they tend to be jokes. One student recently told me: ‘Ara ma tispludiniex, ta!’ (‘Don’t go blowing yourself up on me now...!’) [laughs] OK, it’s a joke; even I find that funny. But I still feel it’s as though there’s a trademark being made: undoubtedly, someone who is Muslim falls first under the category of ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’, ‘closed-minded’, ‘a person who doesn’t believe in democratic values’, etc. Then, if you show that you are willing to mingle, to socialise, to have a chat, to accept different ideas, etc... you are put out of that category. But it has to come from you. The assumption is made, and it’s up to you to prove otherwise...

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