A fifth the size of Greater London, Malta is the smallest country in the European Union and one of the smallest in the world. Given its tiny proportions, it is no big surprise that Malta does not register high in the consciousness of most Europeans, some of whom actually believe that Maltesers come from there.
Having spent a week on the island, I can reliably report that it is no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wonderland but it is nonetheless a fascinating place where many cultures have mixed to give Malta its own rather original flavour.
Take the language. Maltese, an official language of the EU and the only Semitic language to be written in Latin script, sounds almost as if it is a dialect of Arabic, with Italian and English vocabulary thrown in.
Given that the Arabs only ruled Malta for less than two centuries and the island is overwhelmingly Catholic, it is somewhat surprising that Arabic provides Maltese with its basic structure and an estimated 40% of its vocabulary. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Maltese is derived from Siculo-Arabic, a language that has died out in neighbouring Sicily.
Although the architecture of Malta, which has a strong Baroque character, has less of an Islamic feel about it than Sicily’s, the evidence of the Arab presence lives on in a large number of place names, from the old capital, Mdina and its suburb, Rabat, to all the Marsa-this and the Marsa-that (“Marsa” means port in Arabic).
The Arab influence also survives in the cuisine and culture, including some forms of traditional Maltese music. For example, the improvised singing duels of traditional Maltese għana (derived from the Arabic for “song” and “wealth”) bear a striking resemblance to the witty exchanges of poetic fire involved in traditional Zajal.
This not only indicates an Arab influence but, more profoundly, reflects – as do many aspects of daily life, ancient superstitions and beliefs in the region – an underlying Mediterranean heritage predating both Christianity and Islam. In fact, given their long centuries of shared history, it could be argued that many Mediterranean countries have more in common with each other than with their coreligionists in, say, northern Europe or Arabia.
Despite Malta’s obvious cultural mash, many will argue that the island is essentially European, and that the Arab and Islamic influence are the accidental leftovers of an unwelcome conquest. But this raises the tricky and thorny question of what exactly is “European”.
If, by European, we mean Christian, then Malta probably qualifies more than most. It is not only home to one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, it was also the base of the Knights Hospitaller. The knights, drawn as they were from all over Europe, have been described as the “first embryonic council of Europe”, and their successful repulsion of a far larger invading Ottoman force in 1565 is the stuff of legend.
And it is this kind of standoff that people who believe in a monumental “clash of civilisations” draw upon to justify their views. Two major failings of this theory, as I’ve argued before, are that it ignores the very real conflicts within individual civilisations, and it overlooks the fact that political alliances are multiple, shifting, and often cut across self-defined civilisational boundaries. This is because, although societies may sometimes come to blows over abstract principles, more often they clash over conflicting interests.
Malta’s own history demonstrates this. Along with Sicily, it fell into Arab hands following an appeal for Muslim support from its Byzantine ruler in his power struggle with the Byzantine emperor, Michael II.
In addition, the clash between Catholics and Protestants has often been far more bitter than the clash between Islam and Christianity (a similar situation exists between Sunni and Shia Muslims). In Malta, Napoleon’s occupation of the island was hugely unpopular because of its hostility towards Catholicism, not to mention its high taxes. Following British rule, Malta actually found common cause with other post-colonial states, such as Egypt, and became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In an increasingly secular age, the suggestion that Europe is just a modern rehashing of what used to be known as “Christendom” is not appealing or desirable to many, and they will argue that the EU is a union of values. And in terms of democracy and voter turnout, Malta is an exemplary member of the European club.
However, some traditional values that go against what we regard as fundamental freedoms in the modern age continue on the island. For example, divorce is still illegal in Malta, and the public controversy surrounding a bill to legalise it does not bode well. Abortion is also illegal in Malta, whereas, for instance, Albania has some of the most progressive abortion laws in the world.
Malta’s complex and mixed heritage, and its continuing cultural and economic ties with the southern Mediterranean, made the island the most reluctant of the new member states to join the EU. Union membership remains something of a contentious issue on the island, as demonstrated by former Labour prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s recent pronouncements on the subject.
I personally do not think that Malta should pull out of the EU. Rather, the prospect of future EU membership should be extended to other Mediterranean countries who manage to meet the necessary legal, political and economic criteria. This would not only finally lay to rest the notion that there is some kind of inherent “clash of civilisations”, it will also enable the EU and its Med neighbours to benefit from the region’s young population and (renewable) energy resources.
Khaled Diab, a Brussels-based journalist and writer.