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Perceptions of Muslims shaped by island’s history

There are an estimated 6,000 Muslims living in Malta.

There are an estimated 6,000 Muslims living in Malta.

Malta’s Muslims are generally referred to in homogeneous terms that have negative connotations, a national report on racism has found.

Researchers found that Muslims were broadly described as “Arabs”, “North Africans” or “illegal immigrants”, ignoring the many different ethnicities, nationalities and cultures present among the Islamic population.

Sub-Saharan Africans, who remained the community’s most vulnerable to racism and discrimination, were generally assumed to be Muslims, the research found.

The national report for Malta was prepared by The People for Change Foundation and Integra Foundation, and covered the period between March 2011 and March 2012.

It formed part of European Network Against Racism’s (ENAR) Shadow Report on racism in Europe 2011/12, released to coincide with today’s International Day Against Racism.

For the first time, the ENAR report included a pan-European qualitative survey on Muslim communities across the continent.

Islamophobia was widespread all over the continent and increasing prejudice towards Muslims was often greater than that experienced by other religious or ethnic minority groups across Europe, the ENAR report stated.

Researchers in Malta found that perceptions of Muslims were shaped by the island’s Roman Catholic tradition and history, notably St Paul’s fabled shipwreck on the island in AD60 and the Great Siege of 1565, when the island held out against Islamic Ottoman forces.

National identity was “often described in terms of Roman Catholic roots and... rarely identifies itself with the diversity it encompasses in practice,” the report found.

Malta’s Islamic period, between the ninth and 12th century, “has essentially been eradicated from the national narrative.”

Muslim women who wore the hijab (headscarf) had problems accessing employment, the research suggested. Reference was made to one woman who was allegedly told by Employment and Training Centre staff that wearing a hijab would impede her possibilities of finding work.

The report recommended that efforts be made to ensure the Muslim community was politically empowered to engage with “relevant debates”, and to ensure that the education system catered for the diversity of its students.

According to 2011 US State Department figures, of an estimated 6,000 Muslims living in Malta, approximately 5,250 are foreign citizens in either a regular or irregular immigration status, 600 are naturalised citizens, and 150 are native-born citizens.

Elsewhere, the report noted that racial and religious discrimination continued to occur over the reporting period in employment, education, housing, healthcare, the media, political participation, access to goods and services and the criminal justice process.

Nevertheless, greater engagement of NGOs and community organisations within the policy making sphere had started to have a positive impact, “albeit on a rather bleak general picture”.

The report was authored by Integra’s Maria Pisani and The People for Change’s Jean-Pierre Gauci, with input from 12 community leaders and NGO representatives who were consulted. Mr Gauci said: “We need to ensure that there is political will to challenge discrimination and promote equality. There is greater need for all stakeholders to work together, and for strategic and coherent actions to be implemented in order to overcome the challenges of racial and religious discrimination in Malta and across Europe.”

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