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France: Benzema called 'Islamist' for donning traditional Saudi dress

Star who put on a bisht, thobe and shemagh for a Saudi holiday with Al-Ittihad teammates comes under attack from far-right National Rally party
Karim Benzema wearing traditional Saudi attire, featuring a beige bisht and a shemagh, to mark Saudi National Day (Twitter/@ittihad_en)
Karim Benzema (R) wearing traditional Saudi attire, featuring a bisht and a shemagh, to mark Saudi National Day (Twitter/@ittihad_en)

An image of star footballer Karim Benzema wearing traditional Saudi attire to mark the kingdom's National Day has sparked far-right outrage in France.

On Saturday, the former Real Madrid striker took to the social platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to share an image of himself wearing a beige bisht, an embroidered coat, and shemagh, a red-and-white chequered headwear, traditionally worn by Saudi men during special occasions such as weddings and festivals.

Saudi National Day is celebrated annually on 23 September and commemorates the renaming of the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by a royal decree from King Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The image attracted more than 3 million "likes" across social media platforms, but also ignited significant criticism from French far-right figures who denounced Benzema's choice of clothing as promoting an "Islamist" ideology.

"At least he's clear," president of the far-right National Rally party Jordan Bardella said in an interview on Sunday with BFM TV. 

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"He wants an Islamist way of life; he went to Saudi Arabia," Bardella said, referring to Benzema's June transfer to the Saudi club Al-Ittihad. "If everyone who wanted an Islamist way of life could go to Islamist countries, perhaps France would be better off."

When questioned about labelling "one of the greatest French football players" an "Islamist", Bardella said there was a need to "distinguish the work of the individual" and that Saudi Arabia was a "rigorist, Salafist" country, where "the hands of thieves are cut off".

Social media users responded by pointing out that Benzema is not the first football player to don traditional Gulf clothing.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, who have also joined the Saudi Pro League, previously wore the shemagh while taking part in the traditional sword dance known as Al-Ardha.

Benzema became the first major footballer to transfer to the Saudi Pro League this summer, following in the footsteps of his former Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo, who joined Al-Nassr club at the start of this year.

Translation: Cristiano Ronaldo is a Christian. Neymar is Christian. Both wore the same outfit as Karim Benzema. These outfits are part of Saudi culture and are NOT religious in nature. These photos and spots appear now to celebrate the country's national day. Mr. Bardella should find out before spewing his hatred.

Benzema signed with Al-Ittihad for a $200m contract.  The current holder of the Ballon d'Or, football's highest individual prize, said his decision to transfer was influenced not only by his salary but also by the opportunity to practise Islam in the country: "I am Muslim, it is a Muslim country, and that is where I want to be."

Benzema's move came amid a wave of transfers linking high-profile players to teams in the Saudi Pro League brought about by an injection of funding from the kingdom's Public Investment Fund.

Critics say Saudi Arabia is using sports as a distraction from human rights issues in the country, known as "sportswashing".

When asked about these accusations during an exclusive interview with Fox News earlier this month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded: "If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one percent, then we'll continue to do sportswashing."

A version of this article is available on Middle East Eye French edition.

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