Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Identity Question

In a letter to The Times, Ray Azzopardi argues that "Our true identity as Maltese has to be linked to our Christian roots". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whenever one refers to "roots", one is implying a beginning, and it's obvious even from the Bible's account of Paul's arrival here that Malta and the Maltese had their own distinct identity well before the Christian faith even reached our shores. Throughout our history, we have retained our identity even during times when this faith practically disappeared from these islands.

If I had to choose a characteristic that identifies us as Maltese, I'd have to choose the Maltese language. Nothing distinguishes us more from any other nation. Even expatriates maintain the language alive in their adopted countries because of this very reason. In centuries of foreign rule by the Knights, the French and the British, we retained our language - often using it to distinguish ourselves from "the outsiders". Within Malta, people who can't speak Maltese are considered to be foreign residents, irrespective of what their passport or ID card says.

Throughout our history there have always been people who are not Catholics, or even Christian, yet are entirely Maltese. There is evidence of a Jewish community in Malta since before Paul's arrival, making it probably the oldest surviving religion in Malta, though it has not done so continuously. Today there are many Maltese who are Muslim, Hindu, or have no religion at all.

The national anthem is quite irrelevant in determining our identity. It was written by a priest, so it's hardly surprising that it contains references to God. It also refers to "min jaħkimha" - a reference to the British governor of the time. Hardly meaningful today.

I'm surprised that Mr. Azzopardi attributes "our generous and altruistic nature" to Paul's Christianity when the Bible points out that Paul himself was surprised by the natives' "uncommon kindness". It seems that our friendly nature is part of our pre-Christian identity, and has survived 2000 years later. Nor were they "our Christian values" that kept us struggling for independence, since most of our foreign rulers shared that faith.

Mr. Azzopardi asks a loaded question when he asks why we are passing on "a secular and narrow vision of our society" to the next generation. Actually, we are passing on a secular and more open vision of our society. A secular society is one in which each individual has the right to his own faith - or none at all, but the govern remains separate, thus not discriminating against - or in favour of - anyone based on their religion. A nation when one can apply for a teaching post in a government school without being asked to confirm whether they are Catholic first. A nation where the church and the state are separate.

What would our life be like if we did not have this separation between church and state? You can look at Iran or Saudi Arabia as an example of what happens when religion and government are in the same bed. Condoms - and indeed any other form of contraception - would be illegal. Going to mass on Sunday would be compulsory. Unwed mothers would be in prison. Marriage between Catholic and non-Catholic would be prohibited by law, and unmarried couples living together would be harshly punished. Do not make the mistake of thinking that these things only happen in Muslim countries. Not only does our history show otherwise, but even now, fundamentalists in the USA and other nations constantly seek to use the laws to make such impositions on the whole population.

Thankfully, we are already partly secular, but more needs to be done. Religion should be a personal matter even if 99.9% of the country adhered to one faith. Certainly it should not be something for the government to be involved in, nor for our laws to control. A secular society is the foundation for a better future.