Nicolas Sarkozy’s speeches on religion, last month in Rome and last Monday in Saudi Arabia, fuel a lot of controversy. In his Rome speech the French president defended the notion of a “positive laïcité,” and recognized the importance of religion in the daily lives of men who continue to hope and to aspire to a transcendent meaning of life. In Saudi Arabia he hailed Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has ever known” and said that France and Saudi Arabia “share the same objectives of the politics of civilization.”
It is as hard to know how much of what Mr. Sarkozy says he believes himself as it is to define his terms. The total confusion in which the French find themselves on the question of religion and state confirms the belief held by some that the 1905 law separating Church and State is more of a handicap than an asset, now that Islam is one of the religions that has to be accommodated by “laïcité,” a legal structure originally meant only to separate the Catholic Church from the State.
Not only is Islam a new element, but atheism, too, is now regarded as a “spirituality” by the current French government. Yesterday, the Roman Catholic daily La Croix wrote:
On Wednesday before the National Assembly, Minister of the Interior, and of Religion, Michèle Alliot-Marie, defended the notion of “positive laïcité,” explaining that it meant the “recognition of the role of all spiritualities” in the “greatness of our country.”
Note: “Spirituality” is not properly used in the plural, but I am translating exactly what she said.
During the session of questions to the government, the minister, in response to a question from deputy Jean Glavany, national secretary on laïcité from the Socialist Party, affirmed that “laïcité is a great and beautiful value of the Republic (...) but we differ on the meaning that we give it.” […]
Mr. Glavany had asked a long question, inquiring […] what was the meaning of the expression “positive laïcité” used by Nicolas Sarkozy in his speech in Rome last December. The socialist deputy also became indignant at the speech delivered this week in Riyadh by the French head of state, “a speech where God is not mentioned on every page... but in every line, thus creating a fundamental problem in the Republic.”
“Positive laïcité” would be a state in which various religions coexist, all separate from the State, and regarded in a positive light by all, as opposed to “negative laïcité” where these same religions would be regarded negatively.
At his blog Yves Daoudal points out, however, that Jean Glavany is not “negative” on laïcité, as Minister Alliot-Marie implied, but in fact declared on December 21, 2005:
“Today, being a good ‘laic’ means encouraging the construction of mosques in France.”
This brings him closer, in a strange way, to Nicolas Sarkozy, even if his meaning is different (for Glavany, defending laïcité means favoring anything that destroys Christianity).
The question of “laïcité” is at the center of a dispute between the Left who wants nothing to do with Christianity, but doesn’t mind Islam, and the Right who wants to preserve and restore Christian values, with or without Islam.
On Monday, the French president said in the Saudi capital Riyadh that Islam is “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has ever known” and described his Saudi hosts as rulers who “appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.”
Bernard Antony, writing at his blog, calls the Riyadh speech “stupefying.”
President Sarkozy said:
Fourteen centuries ago, from this place, went forth the great élan of piety, fervor, and faith that would carry off everything it met, that would convert so many peoples and bring about the birth of one of the greatest, most beautiful civilizations that the world has ever known. Here in Saudi Arabia are the holiest sites of Islam, towards which every Muslim in the world turns to pray. […] The West received the Greek heritage thanks to the Muslim civilization. […]
No doubt, Muslims, Jews and Christians do not believe in God in the same manner. No doubt, they do no have the same way of venerating God, of praying, of serving him; but, at bottom, who could deny that it is the same God to whom they address their prayers?
Bernard Antony remarks:
No, Mr. Sarkozy, you display a tragic ignorance when you confuse Muslim civilization with Arab culture! The Greek heritage was indeed the legacy of Byzantium. But in its territories submerged in Islam, it was essentially the religious Christian Arabs, notably the Syrians, who saved whatever they could.
In conclusion, we do not reproach Mr. Sarkozy for establishing relations with the Arab States. But we reproach him for stepping out of his role as head of State and, in the name of his strange concept of the politics of civilization, committing a flagrant historical error. It is very regrettable that he has apparently read nothing of the essential works of the great historian Bat Ye’or.
Is Mr. Sarkozy concerned over the status of many non-Muslims in Arabia? Is he worried about the interdiction of any place of worship, be it Jewish, Christian or other, and the death penalty as punishment for conversion from Islam to another religion?
The news reports mention nothing about President Sarkozy having criticized the treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, despite that country sharing Sarko’s “politics of civilization.”