Words must be translated into policies

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s speech, though late in the day, set the right tone for a meaningful debate to take place. But our collective response cannot be limited to words alone

The brutal, cold-blooded murder of Lassana Cisse Souleymane – a man gunned down in the prime of his life, for no other reason than the colour of his skin – has understandably instilled a deep sense of shock throughout the country.

Not just because of the cruelty of the deed itself; but also because the two suspects arrested on murder charges were both members of the Armed Forces: the institution we turn to for protection, in our time of need.

It must also be said that some of this shock carries with it a belated sense of ‘mea culpa’. For too long now, Malta’s avenues for public discussion have blithely ignored the perils of fanning the flames of xenophobia and racial intolerance. There can be no doubt that a culture of unrestrained, unfettered social media commentary has contributed, in no small way, to Souleymane’s death.

Everybody - from the people who indulge in hateful comments, to the media organisations that give those views the oxygen of publicity, to the political parties that build up their policies and rhetoric on the basis of this xenophobia - has been left with much to reflect upon.

Moreover, this unabated rise in radical, far-right extremism must be viewed in the context of growing nationalism in the rest of Europe, and beyond. Clearly, there are no quick-fix solutions to this phenomenon.  Racism is too deeply contingent on other socio-economic issues, to be simply swept away by rhetoric alone.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s speech, though late in the day, set the right tone for a meaningful debate to take place. But our collective response cannot be limited to words alone. The policy direction outlined by Muscat must now be translated into a workable anti-racism strategy on a national level.

Nor can the rise of dangerous, homicidal extremism be attributed merely to the onset of openly racist, Nazi-apologetic parties like Imperium Europa. That image of one of the suspects waving a Labour Party flag, in itself, should put paid to this misconception. We are dealing with a threat that knows no political affiliation, and which cuts right through the Maltese political spectrum.

Indeed, the emergence (and popularity) of such parties is itself the direct result of a demand among the wider public. For years now, the far right has been exploiting the dark corners where Malta’s economic growth peters out, where the lower-income groups are priced out of property, where disparate wage growth has created a larger gulf between highly-skilled, mainly white European migrants and lower-skilled, African and Asian migrants - with the Maltese now also seeing a fall in income – and which leaves only the munificence of social benefits, generous though they may be, to rub out those sharp corners.

What is needed is to come to grips with the factors that have enabled this horrific crime to take place. Not all these factors are directly connected to race issues in the first place. To a large degree, Malta’s racial tensions are also the result of economic policies which – at the risk of oversimplification – put profits before people.

Indeed, Joseph Muscat’s troubling way of portraying foreign workers has also contributed to this view: foreigners are good to do Malta’s dirty work, pay the sky-high rents, pick up the rubbish and serve at our tables. The PN’s campaign under Adrian Delia did not help much either: choosing to always portray ’the foreigner’ as the problem; the cause – instead of the victim – of social inequality.

It is unconscionable that it would have had to take a murder to jolt these political parties to their senses (if, indeed, it has). Rather than pointing fingers of blame at one another, Malta’s political parties would do well to revisit their own rhetoric – their own choice of words, their own campaign strategies, and above all, their own economic policies – and ask themselves where they, too, may have contributed to the wave of hatred that has now cost a man his life.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but it also starts with those who lead the country, and who preside over the economic formula that has crafted the kind of competition that encourages division: a sense that we must fight to survive, especially against those with whom we have no affinity, or who have been denigrated as claimants of benefits or our national ‘generosity’.

If Malta becomes an unjust and unfair society where, take the example of our land grabs, the rich gobble up what belongs to the public, or even destroys the memory of our authentic landscape, it is to be expected that this inequality of wealth, opportunity and influence will spill over into the rest of the social fabric. We will poison the well of our social pact: a pact built on trust.

When this inequality is married to the kind of inflammatory language used by Norman Lowell and the Patriots, it turns into a cocktail that fuels aggression, and violence.

Our response must be peace, unity, embracing diversity, and tolerance: that includes committing Joseph Muscat not just to his speech in Xewkija, but also to challenge his economic model and challenge the inequality that it creates.