Comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath of the beheading of a local schoolteacher this month by a teenaged extremist have caused a furore in many parts of the Muslim world.
The remarks, which have been perceived as “anti-Islam”, have led to calls for boycotting French brands, and hashtags such as #BoycottFrenchProducts, #MacronApologizeToMuslims and #NeverTheProphet have been trending on social media.
A middle school teacher in a Paris suburb, 47-year-old Samuel Paty was killed on October 17, days after he took a class on freedom of expression in which he showed cartoons of Prophet Mohammad from the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo for discussion. The same caricatures had inspired the 2015 terror attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters, in which 12 were killed.
What did France’s President Emmanuel Macron say?
Even before Paty’s killing, Macron had defended the Charlie Hebdo magazine, saying in early September that the right to free speech included the “right to blaspheme”, and pledged to fight against what he described as “Islamic separatism” in France.
Then, on October 2, Macron said the Islam was “in crisis” all over the world, and announced a drive to separate religion from education and the public sector in the country. “The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic,” Macron had said.
After Paty’s murder, Macron came out in support of the teacher, saying, “[Paty was killed] because he embodied the Republic which comes alive every day in classrooms, the freedom that is conveyed and perpetuated in schools. Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.”
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 21, 2020
How did the Muslim world react to Macron’s comments?
The first nation whose leadership openly challenged Macron’s comments was Turkey, a country which has bickered with France over multiple issues in the recent past, including Libya, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday, “What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”
France reacted by recalling its ambassador in Ankara, describing Erdogan’s speech “unacceptable”, and called on the Turkish leader to “change the course” of his “dangerous” policy.
Undeterred, Erdogan on Monday upped the ante by calling on Turks to boycott French goods. The rhetoric reverberated in other Muslim-majority countries, and many decided to follow suit.
In Kuwait, some supermarkets removed French products from their shelves, and there were calls in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to boycott the Carrefour grocery chain. Qatar University decided to cancel a French culture week. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of 6 Arab nations, called Macron’s comments “irresponsible”.
Jordan and Pakistan summoned the French ambassadors to their countries for voicing displeasure. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top cleric, also condemned France.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted Sunday, “Hallmark of a leader is he unites human beings, as Mandela did, rather than dividing them. This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation”
Hallmark of a leader is he unites human beings, as Mandela did, rather than dividing them. This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation
The same day, Macron again doubled down on his stand, saying, “We will not give in, ever.”
We will not give in, ever.
We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2020
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote, “Muslims are the primary victims of the ‘cult of hatred’ — empowered by colonial regimes & exported by their own clients. Insulting 1.9B Muslims — & their sanctities — for the abhorrent crimes of such extremists is an opportunistic abuse of freedom of speech. It only fuels extremism.” 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Muslims are the primary victims of the "cult of hatred"—empowered by colonial regimes & exported by their own clients.
Insulting 1.9B Muslims—& their sanctities—for the abhorrent crimes of such extremists is an opportunistic abuse of freedom of speech.
It only fuels extremism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) October 26, 2020
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia also condemned the cartoons, but did not echo calls for taking action against the images being displayed.
Protests against France were organised in a number of other places, including Syria, Libya, Gaza, Iraq and Bangladesh.
Also in Explained | France, Emmanuel Macron and Islam
Macron faces reelection in 2022, and experts say that the leader is appealing to France’s rightwing voters, given a series of electoral losses this year.
In June, Macron’s party, La République En Marche! (LREM), performed poorly in local elections, failing to make a mark in major cities. A month earlier, a group of left-wing MPs from his party defected, causing the LREM to lose its absolute majority in the French Parliament.
Even during the initial days of the coronavirus pandemic, when leaders from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi saw an improvement in their approval ratings, Macron did not benefit from a comparable bump in favourability.
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