The following is a reflection on history, even though it will invariably discuss events and implications that are more recent. The reason for this is that it deals with concepts of memory, or rather the lack of it, in the shaping of a perceived identity. The term identity, in our case “being Maltese”, is complex and multi-layered, although many engage with a form or another of the expression without ever defining what they mean by it. This is particularly the case in arguments that present multi-culturalism (another term that is generally used as a replacement for ‘foreign’) as a threat to Maltese identity. The typical “local vs foreign” argument that is certainly not new to our century and much less to our island, presents two monolithic groups – the Maltese, and everyone else – as if it were just as simple. Consequently, those who in recent years made it their flagship argument to predict a time when multiculturalism would destroy Maltese identity, are now being hailed as foreseers of the deep discomfort that now grips many on the island. We owe the popularity of these false prophets precisely to the lack of a collective memory, that hardly goes beyond Independence (1964), as we enter each challenge we face without the benefit of nuance and historical grounding. The simplicity in saying that the uniqueness of Malta is being threatened by the many foreigners, legal or not, that settled on the island, resonates with the majority, spearheaded mostly by threats of security rather than culture.
How therefore, can history inform our perspective? It has to be said that the past cannot solve the present, but it can help us distinguish between what is truly anchored in our culture and identity, and what is cheap rhetoric. The location of the island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, means that Malta was and will invariably always be multi-cultural, it cannot be otherwise. What we identify as “purely Maltese” rarely originates on the island, but is generally the product of Mediterranean connectivity mixed with local conditions. Much of this connectivity translated in actual foreign presence on the island, which was not limited to just the foreign overlord and his functionaries, but a large number of foreign merchants, adventurers, scholars, mercenaries and slaves as well as an equally large group of other travellers and pilgrims who were in-passing. Indeed the term ‘Maltese’ is used in many pre-modern documents specifically to distinguish those inhabitants who were born on the islands as opposed to those others that were born elsewhere but were living here, hence it placed an emphasis on birth-place. By contrast, in modern times (post-1800) we gradually find references to citizenship, first British and eventually Maltese, shifting the stress onto the legal status of an individual. In medieval and early modern times, culture was generally understood to relate to religion, in that the distinction was mainly between Christians and non-Christians. Despite the many jurisdictional polities, all those who shared the same definition of God, shared also the same set of social rules, and bar some minor differences, were held to belong to the same ‘greater people’. In this, to be Maltese meant forming part of the ‘Cristiana Republica’ (generally used in a Catholic context), with the excommunication from the religious community or apostasy being tantamount to a social and cultural anathema. A closer understanding to our definition of culture appears in the nineteenth century with the introduction of language as an hallmark of identity and cultural affiliation, pitting English versus Italian…and eventually the Maltese language. Even though this tug-of-war is referred in history books as the language question, it was concerned with much more than simply the lingua franca, with undertones of religious differences (Catholic vs Protestant) and attitudes towards the foreigner being the real crux of the matter. Outside academic circles, few know or acknowledge that the Language Question saw the birth of Malta’s political parties and the first baby-steps towards Maltese statehood. In sum, the relationship between the Maltese-born and the foreign inhabitants on the island is hardly a recent development from the cultural stand-point. What changed drastically over the past few decades is the population density, the conditions and reasons of illegal migration and asylum seeking. Here there are ethical, legal and economic arguments to be made, ones that I do not have the competence to present. What is certain is that claims of multiculturalism being a threat to Maltese identity are unfounded, as if anything, Maltese identity is nothing if not multicultural.
On one thing I am in agreement with those who claim that Maltese culture is threatened. It truly is! It is a threat that is rooted in short-sightedness, in an economic model based on immediate return rather than sustainability, in the lack of quality education, over development and the destruction of what little natural resources we have. Who is to blame? Certainly not anyone’s culture, we need more of it not less.