In Riyadh, Sarkozy praises God, Islam and Saudi Arabia

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.

Turkey’s Veiled Democracy

The Rome trip’s over and it’s back to other interesting religion topics — like Islam in Turkey.

Mustafa AkyolThe evolution of Islam and politics in Turkey is one of the most interesting recent developments in the Muslim world. One of the most interesting writers following this is Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul journalist who is deputy editor of the English-language Turkish Daily News and regularly posts his TDN columns on his blog The White Path. Some of his articles require familiarity with today’s Turkish political scene, but his latest is an informative stand-back guide to how “Turkey now nurtures an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with modern values such as democracy, liberalism and capitalism.

Akyol’s blog flags the article as “Turkey’s Veiled Democracy [A Must-Read Article].” It’s published in the November/December issue of The American Interest (here it is in PDF). In it, Akyol surveys the emergence of modernising trends in Islam during the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the secularist Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the rise of modern “neo-orthodox” Muslims who formed the governing AKP party.

Malaysia reviews its religious conversion laws

Malaysia’s Federal Court, which rejected Lina Joy’s conversion caseMalaysia has been getting some negative publicity for a while now because of the problems some citizens face when they want to convert from Islam. Malaysia is majority Muslim, with sizable religious minorities, and it leaves Muslim personal law issues to the sharia courts. They do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, meaning apostates end up in a legal limbo because they cannot register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Christian convert Lina Joy learned that to her chagrin in May when the the Federal Court — the country’s highest court — refused to remove the word “Islam” from her identity card.

The government now wants to resolve this problem. “The attorney-general’s chambers is studying the matter,” Malaysia’s de-facto justice minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was quoted as telling parliament this week. “It is an ongoing process. It is also a sensitive issue and, God willing, a method can be achieved on how to decide on the religion of a person.”

It’s not clear how this is going to work. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in July that Islamic religious authorities should be ready to handle apostasy cases. “We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems,” he told reporters. “This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don’t want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?”