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Muslims worldwide are protesting French President Macron’s crackdown on Islam

From Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, thousands want a boycott of French products.

Bangladeshi Muslims denounce French President Emmanuel Macron for his remarks defending the right to display cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, on October 27, 2020.
Mushfiqul Alam/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Thousands of Muslims from the Middle East to Asia are protesting the French government and boycotting French products after President Emmanuel Macron defended the right to display cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed — considered a major taboo by many Muslims.

From Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, Iran to Morocco, countries are showing their displeasure at how France is treating its Muslims. It threatens to drive a wider rift between the Western European nation and much of the broader Muslim world.

Earlier this month, secondary school teacher Samuel Paty brought scrutiny when, as part of a lesson on freedom of expression, he showed his students two caricatures of Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the same images that in 2015 inspired jihadists to kill 11 staff members at the magazine and six others in Paris. Parents and teachers at the school said Paty gave his Muslim pupils the opportunity to leave the classroom or look away so as not to offend them, but an outcry ensued nonetheless.

On October 16, an attacker beheaded Paty with a butcher knife as the teacher made his way home. Police found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to the assailant that featured a picture of the severed head along with a message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”

In response, Macron’s government has turned Paty into a freedom-of-expression hero.

At a national memorial for the slain teacher last week, Macron said France “will continue the fight for freedom” and “intensify” efforts to end Islamist extremism in the country. Part of that campaign is to create an “Islam of France,” as the president has put it for years, that aims to seamlessly integrate Muslims into French society.

Macron says extremists are impeding that integration, and his government has begun carrying out raids, deportations, and ordering the dissolution of certain Islamic groups. One of them aimed to fight Islamophobia in France and another was a humanitarian organization that does work in Africa and South Asia. Authorities also didn’t stop images of the cartoons from being projected onto French government buildings during the national remembrance.

France’s interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, told local paper Libération on Monday that such measures were aimed at “sending a message,” adding, “We are seeking to fight an ideology, not a religion.”

Yet to thousands of Muslims worldwide, fighting a religion is exactly what it seems like the French government is doing. And they’re speaking out against it.

From boycotted yogurt to canceled “French week”

On Tuesday, 40,000 people rallied in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, against Macron’s efforts, and even burned him in effigy. That followed less aggressive acts in other countries, with Turkey, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more calling to boycott French products and grocery stores.

In Kuwait, for example, they’ve already started pulling items like French yogurt and sparkling water off the shelves. Qatar University even canceled its “French week” as part of the anti-Macron movement.

It’s unclear what precisely instigated the protests. H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, said it was likely a combination of factors, namely Macron’s defense of the cartoons and the crackdown on Islamic organizations. “A lot of people are quite aware of that outside of France, and it contradicts the claim that the French authorities are only going after extremists,” he said.

The global reaction by Muslims is similar to what happened after a far-right Danish newspaper published cartoons titled “The Face of Muhammad” in 2005.

Even though no image directly portrayed the prophet, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest. Some demonstrators responded violently, and 250 people were killed and another 800 were injured. But the main action was for the public in Muslim-majority countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya — to boycott Danish goods and companies.

The message was clear then as it is now: If a country allows such cartoons to be published, it will take a major economic hit. But that message hasn’t been fully received by the target countries, and experts believe the current uprising may eventually fizzle out just like the Danish one.

“It’s going to be a blip,” said Shahed Amanullah, a former US State Department official who led outreach to Muslim communities around the world, “and the fundamental problems of what’s happening in France aren’t going to be addressed by the outside world.” There’s no prominent effort by French Muslims for a boycott at the moment, Amanullah continued, which means “when they subside, they’re going to be left holding the bag.”

But some world leaders actually want the protests to continue — mainly because it benefits them politically.

This is an opportunity for Muslim leaders to grab power

The heads of Muslim-majority countries have stepped up their criticism of France since the Paty murder, and of Macron in particular.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday tweeted the French president’s actions and statements “inevitably leads to radicalisation.” The next day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went even further, saying in a televised addressed that French products should be boycotted since Muslims in France have been “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II.”

(Other figures, like those leading Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, are also making similar comments to gin up anti-Western sentiment and show themselves to be defenders of Islam.)

Why say such things if it might provoke further anger? Perhaps they truly believe it, but experts argue they’re making those comments out of pure self-interest.

“I don’t think they’re instigating, necessarily, but they’re definitely utilizing [the moment] for their own benefit,” said Mobashra Tazamal, a researcher on Islamophobia. “These leaders often present themselves as defenders of Islam and Muslims and it pays off for them in terms of national support.”

But, she noted, they’re more talk than action. “Both Khan and Erdoğan have failed to hold China accountable in its campaign of repression against Uighur Muslims,” she said, “even as Chinese authorities destroy mosques, criminalize the observance of Ramadan, and force Uighur Muslims in concentration camps to drink alcohol and eat pork.”

Still, Macron is an easy target, and may be one for months to come. On October 2, two weeks before the Paty murder, Macron delivered an address detailing his views on the role of Islam in France’s secular society.

“What we must attack is Islamist separatism,” he told the nation, saying extremists preyed upon desperate Muslims in desolate neighborhoods, basically creating anti-French enclaves by spreading their radical Islamic “ideology” and “project.” He also made some sweeping, incendiary generalizations, such as that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today, all over the world.”

Such language, experts say, particularly demonizes French Muslims. That not only gives the Khans and Erdoğans of the world fodder to attack Macron, but also the space to animate their publics when it most suits them, potentially stirring up even more trouble.

They might win, in other words, but France’s Muslims may lose. “This will have lasting consequences, I think, in how French Muslims are problematized in France by the elite,” RUSI’s Hellyer said. “That’s troubling.”

Macron’s two reason for continuing the crackdown on French Muslims

Experts say Macron’s actions are driven by two factors.

First, he is trying to garner some right-wing bona fides by taking a tougher stance against Islamic extremism ahead of his reelection fight 18 months from now. Second, he’s a true believer in France’s centuries-long values of freedom of speech and secularism. “We will not give in, ever,” he tweeted on Sunday.

The problem with that is French Muslims may feel extremely targeted by what Macron’s government is doing. After all, Holocaust denial is criminalized, which means some forms of expression are outlawed in France. But when it comes to images of the prophet, Macron says that’s fair play.

“French Muslims are asking for the same respect that France gives French Jews,” said Amanullah. “They want to feel like they’re equal French citizens, not second-class citizens.”

Unsurprisingly, little of what Macron’s government has done has sat well with Muslims around the world — and they’re expressing their frustrations.