In Riyadh, Sarkozy praises God, Islam and Saudi Arabia

January 15, 2008

France’s President Sarkozy speaks with Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, 14 Jan 2008Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.

We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels,” the outspoken left-wing magazine Marianne commented. “Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ, as he did during his papal visit. Travelling in Arab lands, Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam.”

In a more moderate tone, the Paris newspaper Le Monde commented that the “God who does not enslave man” quote was “surprising for a head of a secular state“. Laïcité, the legal separation of church and state imposed on the traditionally Catholic country in 1905, is a key concept of modern French democracy and presidents before Sarkozy never challenged it. Public attachment to laïcité has actually strengthened in recent years as religious demands by the growing Muslim minority upset the quiet consensus against allowing faith a role in public life.

Members of Saudi Shura advisory council listen to France’s President Sarkozy, 14 Jan 2008/Ali JarekjiSarkozy avoided linking Islam and terrorism, telling his Saudi audience that crimes had been commited in the name of religion throughout history. “They were not dictated by piety, by religious feelings or by faith, but by sectarianism, fanaticism or the will to power. Religious feelings have often been instrumentalised,” he said. “Today it is not religious feeling that is dangerous, but its utilisation for regressive political ends.”

He appealed for a “policy of civilisation“, an approach stressing common values among diverse peoples. “This is what is done by those within Islam — as in the other religions — who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” This leads to “the synthesis of modernity and the deep identity of Islam, without shocking the consciences of the citizens.” He then said Saudi King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Moroccan King Mohammed were promoting just such a policy.

Blunt as always, Marianne accused Sarkozy of praising a feudal monarchy supported by “Wahhabism, an obscurantist doctrine that applies shariah law and its barbaric punishments and excludes all other religions but Islam from the country.” Even the conservative daily Le Figaro, which praised his focus on common values across borders, said it hoped his speech would give food for thought to the Saudis “who ban all other religions except the Muslim faith and even ban the import of Christmas trees“.

Many Western political and religious leaders have been saying that Saudi Arabia must let other religions operate freely there, just as Western countries allow Muslims to build mosques and pray freely. Do you think Sarkozy should have taken a tougher line in his speech?

One comment

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What is he doing with that sword?
Are we sure that this isn’t a new form of the guillotine?
Fascinating what is happening in France at the moment. The press can hardly keep up with Sarkozy. All of these different ways of interpretting what is and isn’t appropriate under Laïcité also rather remind of quite arcane but very animated theological discussions. “It’s very important to defend laïcité – but laïcité as I define it.”
In the end the only real issue seems to be that Sarko gets the front page picture again and that are more lead items about him than the media can cope with. So thanks for not going with that but giving us some analysis of content. Much appreciated.