You’d think that after getting progressively more annoyed at the general presence of billboards and advertisements during our general election, it would be a while before we ever had to speak about them again. But alas, here we are, less than a month after the dust has settled on the elections, talking about billboards again. Fast food firm New York Best recently put up a massive banner in Msida depicting Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, but replacing the bread and wine with pizza, burgers and milkshakes.
Of course Malta being such a touchy nation when it comes to religion, this banner soon made national news. The reactions since have been wide and various, but there has been A LOT of backlash, with a number of people calling the banner shameful, blasphemous and even demanding that people boycott the fast food establishment. Furthermore, later in the day, Desmond Falzon, who was a candidate in the previous election with the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin (and inexplicably managed to get a grand total of 0 votes), uploaded a series of pictures showing himself and the leader of the aforementioned party Henry Battistino, cigarette in hand, tearing down part of the banner, stating (in questionable English) that they were doing what had to be done. Battistino himself admitted that he had broken the law, but stated that “My faith is stronger than all man-made laws”.
Now there’s a number of issues with this whole situation. The most profound of all however is this “holier than thou” attitude that a lot of Maltese display when it comes to these situations. All of the protests and general hassle against this banner have been because it depicts a religious scene and because it is, supposedly, in bad taste. God forbid though, that these same people create this much hassle when a priest is caught fondling a child, or when religious feasts are used as an excuse for a glorified piss-up*, or when every other sentence is started with “haqq *insert deity/saint/variation of the Virgin Mary*. A marketing banner with an artistic impression of a religious scene though? Time to get the torches and pitchforks out!
*It should be noted – I’m all for the religious and cultural tradition behind feasts; the bands, the processions, the fireworks. But having half the village invaded by kiosks and toy stands isn’t exactly in the spirit of religious tradition. I seem to remember in fact that Jesus had a thing or two to say to those who made business in sacred places. Aside from that, neither are 2am Pjazza after-parties written anywhere in the scriptures. But anyway, that is another argument for another article.
Then you get to people like Mr. Battistino and Mr. Falzon. They preach about wanting to retain Christian values, as Mr. Battistino said in the University General Election Debate a couple of months ago. This is all well and good in most normal respects. Then again though, I never knew that Christian values involved vandalising other people’s property (which, please note, is illegal), blaming all our problems on foreigners coming into our country whilst also finding a way to implicate Muslims into pretty much everything. Such discrimination is what Christian values are all about. Seriously.
Then you get to the freedom of speech point. One of the pillars of a modern, democratic and civilised nation is the concept of freedom of speech. If there’s one thing that Malta suffers from, it’s the attitude of its people. As soon as somebody sees something that they do not agree with, the reaction isn’t one of acceptance but one of anger. This is something that happens especially when it comes to religion, and in a society which is becoming increasingly more secular; this is bound to create some hassle. Conflict of ideas is obviously not an inherently bad thing. But when that conflict turns into boycotts and insults, that goes against freedom of expression.
I seem to remember the case of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Whilst an extreme example, I seem to recall that not just the nation, but the whole continent was (rightly) aghast at what happened, and came together in solidarity for the victims and in favour of freedom of expression. So why is it that now these same people have created such an astonishing amount of hassle, vandalised and called for boycotts against this establishment? Freedom of expression seems to be something we all protect and covet; until someone expresses something that we don’t agree with. Then it’s all torches and pitchforks, as mentioned above.
I could draw another comparison. Recently, ISIS destroyed the Al-Nuri Mosque (pictured above), one of Iraq’s most valuable historic landmarks, dating back from the 12th century. The reason behind such actions? The militants said that the structure contradicted their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. So they removed it. Just like this banner was removed as well. I’ll leave you to draw the comparisons. So, do we want to live in a civilised society where we tolerate expression? Or do we want to go onto an ISIS-style crusade to make sure that everyone believes in the same thing?
Quite frankly, a lot of Maltese people need to learn that we live in a world that is, first and foremost, a free one and also a world that is becoming more secular by the day. This banner was nothing more than an artistic impression. A marketing stunt. Nothing more, nothing less. You’re free to get offended by it, but don’t expect everyone else on the island to accommodate your offence. Fundamentally though, I don’t think New York Best even care about this backlash. In fact, this backlash has, ironically, given them the best marketing they could have possibly hoped for when putting that banner up.