MALTA DIARY: The one and only ….but will it remain like that?
In recent months matters have been building to a head, simmering under the surface, sometimes bubbling and then simmering down again……but in the last three weeks escalating sharply in a show of patriotism, indignation and solid entrenchment. The underlying message is “this is what we are – and this is how we intend to remain”.
Malta and Gozo are small islands and anything over and above the ordinary quickly leaps to become conspicuous. Integration and an invasion of different nationalities have always been a part and parcel of Maltese history the greatest hallmark being a glossary of international surnames ranging from Maltese, Jewish, Arabic, British, Italian, French, German, Slav – a bag of real allsorts – but today all Maltese.
To claim that the Maltese are “xenophobic” is a joke although such a phobia is a hallmark of small enclaves and in truth the Maltese Nation is an enclave that has grown and grown and now numbers 400,000. However, during the last five years the “normal” ground rules have changed and are changing, traceable to the start of immigrant invasions of Europe bringing a mass assortment of Africans and Arabs to the shores of Malta and Gozo.
Yes, there are pockets of racists who object to colour – but that is not the real problem. The real problem is religion. Christianity has been ingrained in these islands for 2,000 years in all its forms, whether devout, whether as a result of fear and ignorance, whether of indifferent observance or whether as a form of compliance to avoid social exclusion.
In recent years the enthusiasm began to decline sharply as more and more people became more and more indifferent in the light of “modernisation”. Church attendances began to drop and also dropping over the years the human resource element of priests, monks and nuns which began with a gradual and then steep decline.
The Vatican and Maltese church authorities began to manifest concern and anxiety over the future of central Mediterranean islands in the past always regarded as bulwarks of Christianity.
However, over the last five years the graph began to shift the other way as with great trepidation and alarm an influx of Muslims began to stir old sentiments and events in nearby European countries continued to fuel the embers that were gradually dying down.
With dismay news items relating how Christian symbols in various countries were being dismantled so as not to “cause offence”, how Christmas celebrations were cancelled or watered down and an increase of mosques and Islamic schools all over Europe began to unearth and revive that which was naturally withering away.
Yet, the real alarm bells began to jangle furiously with successive horror stories of extreme atrocities and terror monstrosities, the advance of Islamic State in Libya and the overall uncertainty of the Libyan situation as well as the attempts to destabilise Tunisia (both close neighbours).
Malta has had a mosque for the last 35 years and nobody gave it a second thought because the Muslims resident in Malta (mostly Libyans) had successfully integrated and many Maltese had made their fortunes and their living working in Libyan oilfields.
With successive invasions of Muslims from other less familiar countries like Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Iraq, these began to cause concern. There were frequent reports of “domestic” mosques springing up in a number of areas in garages and warehouses and the authorities warning these were “illegal” and were not covered by permits.
To continue to exacerbate matters a substantial number of Schengen and non-Schengen Europeans began making their way to Malta attracted by employment, good wages and living conditions as well as the temperate central Mediterranean climate and feelings continued to be stirred of the Maltese becoming “foreigners” in their own country.
The overall result was a steady and constant barrage in social pages with a stream of laments against Islam and foreigners in employment in general. Groups of small but powerful left and liberal academics and professionals quickly jumped to assert accusations of racism and xenophobia, ignoring the barrage being shown by “the not-so-silent majority”.
An organisation of “Maltese patriots” took root and organised various demonstrations, albeit small but highly vociferous and again these were dismissed as “not being quite right in the head”, yet again these being the tip of “a silent majority” that is steadfastly against making any concessions to Muslims and urging eastern Europeans to “go home”.
Within the last few months I have seen a resurgence of Christian symbols in public places and private offices and this past Christmas the celebrations were extravagant in what I term to be a “knee-jerk” reaction of assertion.
However, everything came to a head some three weeks ago in a development that struck Malta like a bolt of lightning. A group of some 200 Muslims somehow obtained police permission to hold Friday prayers in public and chose to do so in a most central location, at Msida, practically on the doorstep of the local parish church claiming the Paola Mosque was “too small” and “too far away” – in islands where everything is just a stone’s throw away while it is well-known that the Paola Mosque is large and surrounded by plenty of spacious grounds.
The reaction of protest and indignation was explosive with a virtual bombardment in social media, much of it obscene and most uncomplimentary. On the Friday after, Muslim prayers were held there again and proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
On the Sunday after, a group of “Maltese patriots” held a small but very vociferous manifestation in the same locality slicing large joints of cooked ham and distributing it to fervent followers amidst a plethora of Maltese flags.
Simultaneously news emerged that the real reasons for the public Muslim manifestations at Msida had nothing to do with distance and size of the proper mosque but a difference in sects, the adherents of the Paola Mosque classed to be “moderates” and the public adherents fundamentalists and more Islamic extreme and these did not see eye-to-eye with the Imam mosque and were thus pressurising the Malta Government to permit the building of an alternative mosque.
Police permits were immediately cancelled and an alternative indoor area allocated in Floriana, well out of public view.
However, the general cauldron continues to bubble, urging Muslim author Walid Nahban to declare “that in a small country like Malta, the mosque in Paola and its surrounding grounds are enough for the needs of Muslims to pray in Malta.” Nahban is a liberal Muslim who has lived in Malta for the last 25 years and like many other liberal Muslims has fully integrated into the Maltese way of life while retaining his own religious roots without challenge or question. He wrote of the Paola Mosque dissidents forming a “Muslim Council” which he claimed is dedicated to eradicating any liberal movements and which would make “mincemeat” out of him.
There matters currently rest, uneasily. However, Malta’s two main political parties have been thrown into a quandary and should either one of them declare or indicate in any way they are inclined to consider the construction of another mosque will more than probably head for certain electoral defeat no matter the traditional party inclinations of their followers.