Michael Briguglio is a dad, sociologist, activist, green local councillor and rock drummer from Malta

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hope and not terror

The Times, 23 November 2015

If Albert Camus’s claim that he learned about morality and obligation through football is anything to go by, then last Tuesday the world witnessed a splendid example along these lines.

The football match between England and France was characterised by a strong sense of solidarity, symbolised by the singing of the French national anthem and the French flag all over the place.

The 90,000-strong attendance at Wembley stadium gave a shining example of the power of sport to unite people.

Such solidarity was also shown at other international football matches played in the past days, though there were also two bomb scares and some other unfortunate incidents.

The important thing, however, was that Europe stood up to be counted against the terrorist attacks in Paris. Europe showed that despite the psychology of terror propagated by ISIS, life must go on. In short, hope was given precedence over terror.

This sense of hope should ensure that international events such as the Climate Summit and the European Football Championship, and also daily events such as the celebration of everyday life in town squares, should take place.

Indeed, Europe should show resilience, just as it did in other terrible instances throughout its history, when war, intolerance, oppression and totalitarianism blemished the continent.

Europe should not give itself up to the politics of fear and negativism, but should make sure that its values of tolerance, equality, freedom, respect of rule of law are defended and celebrated.

Europe should also support all those who are resisting terrorism outside of Europe’s borders. Beirut and Ankara are only two recent examples of terrorist attacks on common people or on those whose civil society activism supports peace and democracy.

The extremity of ISIS’s methods should remind us of the dangers of all-or-nothing ideologies, as they are essentially anti-democratic and tyrannical.

To the contrary, the democratic structure of the European Union – with all its defects and shortcomings – respects different opinions and cultures, and assumes that no one has a monopoly over knowledge and ideas.

In such a context, European politics are based on adversaries within a democratic game and not enemies in a war. Adversaries play by the rules and respect difference. Conversely, enemies disregard the democratic rules of the game and instead resort to methods such as violence and intolerance.

Statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy

ISIS and other terrorist groups are enemies of Europe as they threaten the basic foundations of European democracy. At the same time, the EU and its member states should not embrace internal politics which point towards anti-democratic methods.

It is terrorism that should be treated with an iron fist, but not at the expense of democratic freedoms and inclusive policies.

In this regard, certain statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy.

Why should Europe pick upon refugees and cultural minorities, many of whom are actually fleeing from the terror of ISIS and others?

I think the government did the right thing in stating that it will respond to calls for assistance from France, in line with the Constitution. If Malta expects solidarity from other countries should Malta be a victim of terrorist attacks, then it is only fair that Malta plays its part in line with Europe’s mutual-defence clause.

In a society characterised by risks and unknowns, it would be naïve to expect that terrorism will disappear at one go, or through a couple of airstrikes. The potential terrorist is everywhere.

Some are terrorists out of ideological conviction; others are radicalised due to their social networks or social experiences. Hence, a plurality of tactics is required in anti-terrorist strategy, ranging from soft to hard methods, from immediate responses to longer-term processes.

But I think that it will be even more naïve and dangerous not to recognise that you cannot negotiate with terrorism. In such a context one should appreciate the difficult yet vital decisions taken by political leaders to enhance security while defending the values and freedoms of democracy: a democracy based on pluralism, diversity, different opinions and mutual respect.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Banning the Burqa?

Times of Malta. 16 November 2015

Maltese members of parliament were recently discussing whether the burqa should be banned from use in public.

This is not a straightforward issue. It transgresses left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious opinions. Many feminists want to ban the burqa and but others don’t. Such divisions exist even internally within political parties and civil society organisations.

There are various arguments characterising the burqa debate, which, in turn, are not necessarily exclusive of each other. In this article I wish to focus on three.

The first argument concerns equality. Here, it is argued that equality should be given precedence over diversity, as sometimes multiculturalism can have its limits, for example when a cultural practice forces women to wear the burqa and to be considered as second-class citizens.

The argument goes that if multiculturalism leads to a moral relativism, then this can lead to a dangerous context of ‘anything goes’, at the expense of equality. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ would simply be personal opinions, and no one would have the right to condemn or stop a practice which belongs to a particular culture.

A shortcoming of this approach is that even if one agrees that the burqa is a sign of gender inequality, why not attack this rather than its symbols?

To date I have not seen campaigns in parliament against, for example, the marketisation of the body, which renders human beings as objects, for example on mainstream television programmes.

Another argument deals with security. Here, one can refer to France’s 2010 ban of the public display of religious symbols, including the burqa, and to the European Court of Human Rights’ support of the country’s banning of people covering their face in public.

France had argued that when one’s face is covered in society, this violates a “minimum requirement of life in society”, and the court’s judgement added that “a veil concealing the face” goes against other people’s rights to “live in a space of socialisation”.

The problem with this argument is that it is very arbitrary. Does revealing your face necessarily make you more sociable? If terrorism is seen as a main concern in terms of security, does wearing a veil make you a terrorist? As far as I know, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the American Oklahoma bomber, did not wear a burqa.

Finally, another argument gives priority to choice. Here, it is stated that in a pluralistic society, people are reflexive and have a right to choose their identity, as long as it does not infringe on the identities of other persons.

Henceforth, the argument adds, women who choose to abide by their religious beliefs by wearing the burqa should be free to do so, just as other women and men get along their daily lives by wearing what they deem fit to wear. Proponents of the choice argument usually add that burqa opponents are concealing their own fear of living with difference, which is a key characteristic of liberal democracy.

Besides, by giving power to the burqa bashers, society can drift towards unnecessary impositions by the state on people’s individuality.

Yet, even this argument has its problems. What if the liberal democracy championed by the supporters of the burqa does not extend to the circumstances of everyday life? Is the burqa really a personal choice or is it an imposition by an ultra-conservative patriarchy within one’s family?

Maybe a pragmatic way forward for the burqa debate would be to see what wearers have to say about this but this option has similar challenges to the ‘choice’ argument.

Given the complexities involved, maybe the burqa issue requires a practical working agreement rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps it would be wiser to give more importance to civil society deliberation than having a short-termist parliamentary debate that aims to resolve the issue after a few sessions. People and groups from different sides can and should discuss the issue in a spirit of respect. Internally, each group may have its own different voices, yet this diversity can actually encourage broader communication.

In this sense, the burqa debate can lead to a genuine multiculturalism of respect, where cultures learn from each other, rather than a multiculturalism of intolerant identities that do not interact.

My deepest condolences to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. In such dark moments, hope should still guide us. #NousSommesUnis