I consider my friend Walid Nabhan to be a Muslim heretic. This description is not meant to be an insult, even if one considers it from a Muslim point of view. The most human and intellectually interesting figures within various religious and political traditions have frequently been branded as heretics.

Yet, in contrast to the stultifying turgidity, ritualism and legalism of mainstream guardians of the sacred; be this sacred, religious or political as in some (per)versions of Marxism; such heretics tend to be beneficial to the tradition in question. They introduce breaths of fresh air that keep their creed lively and germane.

For some time I have had the pleasure of being exposed to Walid’s heterodox views on Islam, particularly his views concerning the founding characters of the religion and the Koran. Walid not merely propounds interesting hypotheses, but intelligently sustains these with linguistic and historical evidence and considerations.

As long as certain matters related to public order are observed, religious gatherings in public spaces ought to be permitted, regardless of the religion

Exegetical and historical questions apart, the fact that Walid does not hold God to be some capricious overlord who would make a fuss about how and where prayers are recited; an attitude encapsulated in the phrase Mela Alla bodbod (God is not a billy goat); is something that mature religious individuals should cherish.

Having said this, I do not agree with his claim that the Muslims that used to gather at Msida ought not to have held their prayers in public or that they should not build their own mosque since they can pray at Paola.

Walid claims that Muslims should not pray in public out of respect for the Christian people who are hosting them. The claim is doubly suspicious. For starters, it seems to assume that all Muslims in Malta are being ‘hosted’. The existence of Maltese Muslims is denied a priori.

Secondly, regardless of whether or not Muslims in Malta are foreigners, it presupposes that the public manifestation of their religion is an insult to local non-Muslims. Now such an approach is antithetical to that of an open and pluralistic society.

With all due respect, it simply reverses the fraught logic adopted by many regimes in predominantly Muslim countries, where a public display of any religion other than Islam is considered to constitute an insult to the Muslim majority. (This obviously does not happen everywhere. Some Muslim mayors in a number of Palestinian towns for instance, participate in some Christian processions.)

As long as certain matters related to public order are observed, religious gatherings in public spaces ought to be permitted, regardless of the religion. What perhaps the Muslims in question could do, as a gesture of friendliness and goodwill, is be more vociferous regarding the evil of similar rights not being accorded to minorities in some Muslim-majority countries.

In this regard, one who supports Walid’s claim might cite the principle of reciprocity to censure activities such as the one at Msida; claiming that the fact that similar religious gatherings in public spaces by Christians would not be allowed in many Muslim countries, justifies us in not allowing such gatherings by Muslims. Yet, this line of thought is fallacious.

Not merely is the principle in question highly dubious on philosophical grounds, but adopting it in our case would not make sense because the principle is antithetical to the ethos of Christianity.

There is nothing that is more contrary to Jesus’s teaching than repaying back in kind the evil others commit against one. Local Christians that reject this teaching should reconsider their religious affiliation. Thirdly, I do not think that in relation to the issue of permits for religious gatherings or the building of religious edifices, government ought to enter into the motives that animate these requests. That the Muslim group at Msida was born out of some fit of pique, that they adopt a silly theology or that their rationale assumes that God is a billy goat (all counts on which Walid is in all probability correct) is something that is beyond government’s concern.

It would be a different thing though, if some group where to promote terrorism or attacks against innocent people.

To consider an analogous example concerning Christianity, if one wants to establish a sect and open his/her own church in a fit of pique with the archbishop, one should have the right to do so provided the relevant legal criteria are met. God forbid if we arrive at a situation where government meddles in strictly religious affairs or evaluates the rights to practice one’s faith on theological grounds, however sound the possible theological objections may be.

This would be clericalism at its worse. What authorities should ensureis that Walid keeps enjoying the rightto remind us that God is not a moron, something that all of us - Christians, Muslims and others - ought to keep constantly in mind.

Two final notes. ‘Patriots’ have turned Walid into a cult hero, not realising (logic is not their forte) that his comments show that their caricature of Muslims as irremediably unthinking blockheads is a travesty. If we love our country we should see to have more Muslims like Walid.

I conclude by condemning those who damaged Walid’s car the night following his appearance on national TV. Their God may not be a billy goat, but they…

Michael Grech is co-author and editor of Jottings and Reflections.

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