The good people of Xagħra have no shortage of imagination. Last Christmas they came up with a novel way in which people could experience the nativity story. They called it Presepju Suq u Mexxi, a rough and fairly impish translation of ‘drive-through crib’. As it said on the tin, it was a kind of roadside tableau vivant that visitors could enjoy without leaving their cars.
Charming, except the novelty was trumped by another roadside religious gathering. For the last few weeks, a group of Muslim men have held their Friday prayers at the busy Msida intersection. As expected, the move has incurred the wrath of the followers of Alla.
I am so far sunk in moral depravity that my wrath has not in any way been incurred. I am not shocked, nor do I feel provoked at the sight of people practising their religion. If that were my inclination, life in Malta would be quite intolerable.
I am, in other words, all for religious freedom, as long as that freedom does not tangibly threaten or affect my life or that of others in any significant way. For example, I do not consider being stuck in traffic because of a religious procession a significant threat. By the same standards, roadside Islam does not really compromise my sleep patterns.
That’s the easy, and perhaps the rhetorical, bit. Except the ruck over the Msida congregation is not at all about religious freedom or the threat of Islam. Certainly it cannot be a matter of live and let live, because the last thing these people want is to be left alone to pray in peace.
The Muslims who gather to pray at Msida are not trying to threaten anyone. Nor are they interested in the so-called Islamisation of Europe, or a second round to the Great Siege by a back door. Rather, it’s perfectly clear that the organisers – who call themselves the Malta Muslim Council – are making a political point about access to the resources of the State.
The place and time are well-chosen. That corner of Msida must be one of the most visible and well-trodden spots in Malta. It’s the ideal setting for the perfect political storm. It helps that the public prayers are being held at a time of heightened tension over the presence of Islam in Europe.
So, a provocation, then? Not quite. The point about the Msida church is pathetic. The place where the Muslims gather is across the road from the church parvis. While it is true that from a certain angle the church appears as a backdrop, one could say that of pretty much anywhere in Malta.
The Muslims who gather to pray at Msida are not trying to threaten anyone
To say that anything that happens within sight of a church is potentially a provocation is to make an astonishing claim about the reach and import of Christianity. The Swiss made that claim in 2009, when 57 per cent of them voted to ban minarets. I doubt anyone in their right senses would want to go down that totalitarian route.
So no, the Friday prayers are not a provocation. They are simply a public and high-profile political statement that is obviously intended to rub some urgency into the Muslim Council’s call for a mosque.
I do not begrudge the council its political action, or its request for a mosque. The problem is the confused, and confusing, manner in which the point is being put across.
The Muslim Council might wish to clarify three things about its request. First, why they think that religious congregations are owed places of worship by the State – in other words, why they can’t simply put up the funds to build their own mosque.
It cannot convincingly be a question of money. The Rivers of Love Christian Fellowship, not exactly a global business, has its own spacious hall of worship in Żebbuġ. There are no more than 100 or so Hindus in Malta, and they found the money to buy a flat in San Ġwann and convert it into a temple. Mġarr and Xewkija were little more than hamlets when the villagers pooled their earnings to build vast churches. And so on. Exactly why thousands of Muslims should not do the same is a mystery to me.
Second, the Muslim Council’s press release of December 25, 2015 (great timing there) said that “in a period of 15 years four sites that were used by the community were forced to be closed down without adequate reasons”.
That, I’m afraid, is not good enough. The people at the council decided to go public and political. It follows that the usual standards of information should apply. I find myself wanting to know more about the circumstances of those four evictions. For example, was the congregation evicted by the State? Was there religious discrimination involved? And so on, in the public interest – including and especially that of Muslims in Malta.
Third, the organisers of the Msida prayers seem to be involved in some kind of negotiation with ‘the authorities’. Only they’re being cagey about it, and that’s quite unacceptable when the negotiation involves a public display of that kind.
Interviewed last Friday, one of their spokesmen said that “hemm rieda tajba miż-żewġ naħat” (“there’s goodwill on both sides”). That could mean the two big political parties, or possibly some government agent the council is negotiating with. Presumably it also involves public land. In any case, the public has a right to know.
These arguments are not Islamophobia in disguise. I repeat that I have absolutely no problem with the fact that Muslims in Malta are increasing, or with the public practise of Islam.
What I do have a problem with is a species of politics that panders to religious or ethnic groups and cultivates them as vote banks. I especially dislike the idea when it involves backroom dealings.
We need to know whether or not this is the case here. The facts are that this kind of massaging for political favour was not entirely absent in the last general election, and that Muslims were among the groups massaged. It’s in the public interest to know if the Msida political spectacle is a case of overdue payment.
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