Nicolas 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.
Sarkozy 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.