Anti-France protests accelerate in Islamic world over prophet cartoon

Both religion, politics behind condemnations of President Macron, analysts say.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to visit the scene of a stabbing attack in the Paris suburb of Conflans St Honorine, France, October 16, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS)
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to visit the scene of a stabbing attack in the Paris suburb of Conflans St Honorine, France, October 16, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Protests have escalated in Islamic countries amid an increase in official and popular calls for a boycott of French goods after President Emmanuel Macron defended the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
Iranian students demonstrated outside the French embassy in Tehran on Wednesday. In Baghdad, dozens protested on Monday outside the French embassy after a pro-Iran faction called on Iraqis to do so.
Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem saw protests on Sunday and Monday to denounce what participants described as Macron’s offenses toward Islam and its prophet. Demonstrators chanted in support of the Prophet Mohammad, raised banners bearing slogans against France and burned pictures of Macron.
The French leader, speaking at a memorial event in front of Samuel Paty’s coffin in Paris last week, said the middle-school teacher, who had shown cartoons of Mohammad to students during a lesson on freedom of expression, “was killed because Islamists want our future.” He added, however, that France would “not give up our cartoons.”
Paty was beheaded on a Paris on October 16.
Macron said France would not abandon the principle of freedom to publish cartoons. Earlier this month, before Paty was killed, he announced plans for tougher laws to tackle what he called “Islamist separatism” in the country.
Antoine Michon, president of Sine Qua Non, a think tank advocating for “a coherent European foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa,” says Macron has been using the same rhetoric for years when speaking about the wars in Syria, Libya or the Sahel region.
On the one hand, he told The Media Line, you have radical Islamists and jihadists, and on the other, “moderate” Muslims.
“He has profound misconceptions about Islam, and the analysis grid he uses is binary,” Michon said.
“This is what ‘separatism’ is about: translating a broader conflict he sees worldwide, which he uses to justify his foreign policy into a rhetoric that will appeal to the republican history of France,” he stated.
Michon added that in Macron’s view, this is how he can avoid discriminating against the large majority of French Muslims, who are not enemies of the state.
“French public opinion was profoundly shocked by the beheading, and many were calling for ‘action.’ Macron also has the 2022 election in mind, as discontent is currently growing regarding his management of the pandemic,” he continued.
“His strategy for the 2022 election will be to go and get votes on his right flank, as he has clearly lost the center-left electorate over the past years on various issues,” he noted. “As a consequence, he cannot appear weak on terrorism issues, and for this reason he thinks he needs to change his rhetoric.”
Boycott calls against France spread quickly on social media.
French products have been removed from some shops in Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged Turks not to buy French goods; he described Macron as a “psychopath” and his actions as fascist after a likeness of the cartoon showed up last Friday on the facades of a number of government buildings in France.
Jalel Harchaoui, an Algerian political analyst based in France, told The Media Line that Turkey’s ever-growing urge to assert itself abroad in a belligerent manner served a domestic purpose for its leader.
“Erdoğan,” he said, “has an incentive to deflect the Turkish public’s attention from a hard-currency debt crisis that has slipped out of control, halved the dollar value of the lira in two years and hurt the real economy.”
The Turkish president undoubtedly wants to emerge as the world leader closest to Sunni Muslims, including in Europe and North Africa, Harchaoui added.
“Arab countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia are deeply and ferociously opposed to political Islam. Yet they do not understand, nor do they approve of, Macron’s approach to Islam in France,” he said, explaining that the French leader had implied that Islam was more diseased and dysfunctional than other religions.
“These same countries view the cowardly murder of Samuel Paty as a horrible, despicable and utterly condemnable act,” he stated. “Despite this, they do not understand what they see as an ideological and sectarian response on the part of the Macron government.”
Harchaoui nonetheless notes that these Arab countries criticized and even deplored Macron’s comments, but did not outright condemn them.
“The geopolitical relationship between France and various Arab countries will likely not be affected by this crisis moment. Only the Turkey-France relationship is being damaged in very worrisome ways,” he said.
In Egypt, social media users mocked Macron. Bloggers circulated a list of French brands and called for a boycott.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said on Tuesday he firmly rejected any form of violence or terrorism from anyone in the defense of religion, religious symbols or icons, although Muslims had rights, too.
“We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” Sisi declared during a televised address to commemorate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. “And if some have the freedom to express what is in their thoughts, I imagine that this stops when it comes to offending the feelings of more than 1.5 billion people.”
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia all rejected France’s insistence on publishing the offending cartoons.
Oraib Rintawi, a Jordanian analyst and writer, told The Media Line that the French president’s statements could not be justified, adding that Macron bore responsibility for reviving the discourse of religious conflict throughout the Islamic world and Europe. Yet he also criticized Turkey’s Erdoğan.
“Regarding the Turkish position, it’s based on political opportunism, as there was [already] a severe conflict between Ankara and Paris and between both presidents as well,” Rintawi said. “Erdoğan is using the situation to restore his image domestically and to increase his popularity abroad as a defender of Islam and Muslims.”
The Turkish president, he believes, is also settling scores with France.
“If we look at social media channels among Arabs and Muslims, we will find the majority celebrate Erdoğan and his positions, and in addition contrast his dynamic stance to the passive attitudes of Arab and [other] Muslim rulers,” he explained.
Yet the current campaign against France is also showing hypocrisy, given what Rintawi called the “constant violations” at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
“How can a heroic stance in support of the Prophet Mohammad go in parallel with a weak position on what’s happening in Jerusalem and in Palestine in general?” he asked.
On Sunday, Jordanian Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the elder son of the late King Hussein, tweeted in support of the Prophet Mohammad but without mentioning the French president. This generated much noise on Twitter, where some praised his position while others said that tweeting alone was not enough.
Suliman al-Ogaily, a political analyst and writer, and a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, told The Media Line that the French president’s support for the right to publish the cartoons had clearly angered the Islamic world, given the holiness of the Prophet Mohammad in Islam.
“The encouragement by Macron of such cartoons looked as if he himself had participated in this disgraceful act,” he said.
Ogaily added that there was no political intention to escalate the conflict with Paris, as the matter was cultural in nature.
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