Monday, 23 November 2009

Times: Crosses, censors and new Labour [Secularism]
22.11.9 by Christian Peregin

[You can watch the video of the interview here.]

"Events have shown that we are not a secular state, and, I fear, less secular than we used to be" - Dominic Fenech. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

[Excerpts of the article]

History professor and former Labour general secretary Dominic Fenech warns his party against losing its soul by "pussyfooting" to pander to voters.


What about the ideological differences between the parties. Do you think there is a distinction between them or is it being blurred?

It is difficult to distinguish in an ideological sense the Labour Party from the Nationalist Party - and it has been difficult for some time because the PN themselves are pretty much lost. I don't know what they stand for anymore except wanting to stay in government. And I think the driving force between both parties nowadays is to stay in government or to achieve government.
In a comment you posted on you said there was too much self-censorship and that the secularisation the party fought for was being undone.

I stand by my words because in recent times there have certainly been events which have shown we are not a secular state, and, I fear, less secular than we used to be.
Give me an example.

Well, there's been a big fuss because two attractive young women went for a photo shoot in a cemetery - as if attractive young women and burial grounds were somehow mutually exclusive. There's been censorship of a particular play... and a student newspaper.

That's the most recent and it involves a student of mine who, I should say, is the kind of student who makes you proud to be an academic. Mark Camilleri risks being sent to jail. He is the editor of a student newspaper which published a story some people thought was obscene, in bad taste or offensive or immoral...

Everybody is free to have their own thoughts, but not everybody is free to punish you for having thoughts which are different to theirs. This is not a big scandalous affair. It is a very mild deviation from what you normally would expect from a student newspaper and it has faced a ban and, maybe more alarmingly, the police have been called in. And maybe actually proceeding in court.

But how does this relate to the Labour Party?

It's a mentality.

What should Labour be doing?

Labour should come out in favour of the student. Labour should ask: is this why we lost two elections back in the 1960s to assert secularisation? So that, in 2009, the chaplain of the University can go up to the Rector and say: 'Hey, what are you going to do about this immoral publication?'

The Labour Party has adopted some stands which have gone against the Church, namely taking a position in favour of divorce and gay rights. How do you reconcile these two differing approaches?

Yes, I'm pleased to know that Joseph Muscat has broached the idea of divorce. But if you ask me if we're going to have divorce in this legislature, then my answer is no, we're not going to have divorce.

What if Dr Muscat becomes Prime Minister?

I think there is a very long way to go to the next election... more than three years.


I think it would depend on how well he would do. But even that is a bit shaky. Because unless a party says it is in favour of divorce, campaigns for it, says why and tells its parliamentary group: look, this is the position of the party and you are expected to follow that position...
So don't you agree with his idea of a free vote?

In theory it's a very democratic way, but in reality you will never get a majority.

Because people within the Labour Party will vote against?

Yes, and I don't see how people in the Nationalist Party are going to vote... or enough of them, at least.

So do you think that those opposing the conservative mainstream are not going far enough?
One of the fights of Mintoff's Labour Party in his early days was to introduce civil marriage. At the time, it was a very big step. It could have lost a certain number of votes but the party in government forged ahead.

There were other issues, like the legalisation of contraceptives, which were illegal before 1971. There were other things, which the Labour Party was able to implement because it had the pro-secularist attitude. We are not against the Church or religion but we are a secularist party and in a secular society people should not have to go through the institutions or norms of the Church in order to do what is legitimate.

It should have followed, that after the introduction of civil marriage we'd have divorce. But what has happened in the past 20 years? Even the law on civil marriage back in the 1980s was whittled down and the role of the Church was brought into civil law.

So, yes, you had a slow build-up of secularism, which is good because, after all, if there is one good thing about joining the EU it is that we may come out of this cocoon of ecclesiastical paternalism. I'm not saying that all the Church and priests are like this but....

There is the controversial issue of crucifixes in classrooms currently being discussed. The Labour Party said secularism does not mean doing away with religious symbols. Do you think it does?
I'm quite indifferent to this. I think it's a foolish issue to begin with. If I go into a lecture room, whether the lecture is a good or bad lecture depends on how prepared I am. Whether there is a crucifix or not is not going to make any difference to my performance or to the students' ability to understand me.

But as somebody who strongly believes in secularism, do crucifixes in classrooms offend you?
They don't offend me but they don't please me. I said I'm indifferent. And if people feel better with it in class, let them feel better. But if secularists are going to be prepared to go along with an icon of the Catholic religion, then the Church and those who support it should be equally respectful of those who do not like to have certain religious overtones to things which should be secular.

So, obviously, if it comes to a question of whether we are going to have a fight in this country for secularism or not, then it will be a free-for-all. And then the secularists are going to have to be against crucifixes.

Including yourself?

I'm indifferent on this particular issue. But I expect that if people are free to have crucifixes and I'm not supposed to feel upset by that, then they should not be upset if someone writes something or puts on a play that offends their morals.

What did you think of the Archbishop's comments on censorship (on the crucifix issue)?

The Archbishop now knows what it means to be censored. I'm against censorship. I wouldn't censor the Archbishop. To be fair, I don't think it's the Archbishop himself. There are members of the clergy who are putting their head up again. And there are people, who may be lay Christians, who can be sometimes more pope-ish than the Pope.

I don't know, for example, whether it was a priest or some bigoted fanatic who went to the police and drew their attention to two undressed mannequins in a Mosta shop window. I mean, is there anything less sexy than a naked mannequin? And this was for a cause (to raise awareness about sex exploitation).

Prof. Dominic Fenech, 58 is a History professor at the University of Malta; Head of Department of History; Dean of the Faculty of Arts; He was the Labour Party general secretary (1977 - 1983)

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