Backlash over French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment on Islam explained

A multi-country backlash – going beyond the Arab world – is building up following French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment following terrorism-related incidents in Paris. Angry responses have come from Turkey to Pakistan with some heads of states denouncing Macron’s comment and trade organisations in the Islamic world calling for a boycott of French products.

WHAT DID MACRON SAY?

It is not about one particular comment that has sparked off a hot debate and angry reactions from the Arab countries. It began with Macron unveiling his secular legislation plan early this month to tackle what he has described as “Islamic separatism” in France and “Islamic terror attacks”.

On October 2, while announcing that his government would bring out fresh legislation to strengthen the 1905 French law that separates church from state. During his announcement, he said, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country.”

In his speech, Macron asserted that there would be “no concessions” made in the drive to separate religion from education and other public sectors in France. The new bill is expected in December.

WHY IS THE REMARK BEING CRITICISED?

Many saw the “crisis” comment of Macron as problematic pointing out that this was a departure from the practice of distinguishing “radical Islam” from Islam, the religion practised by millions of people across the world. Some others accused Macron of trying to suppress the religious freedom of Muslims in France.

WHY MACRON WANTS A NEW LAW IN FRANCE

This has had a rather long build-up.

For France, state secularism has been as important a principle as “equality and liberty”. State secularism is a matter of national identity in French politics.

It was to keep this identity intact, France banned the use of religious symbols in schools in early 2000s. Later, the wearing of hijab (a kind of veil) was banned in France evoking a strong protest from Muslims living in France.

There is Charlie Hebdo connection too.

What set the debate afresh in French society was the attack on Charlie Hebdo office in 2015, and subsequent terror incidents in the country. Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine, had published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed leading to protests in many countries across the world.

Its office was attacked in November 2015 killing 12 people. Terror attacks took place over three days in Paris and its surrounding areas. A total of 17 people were killed.

A police crackdown followed which saw a wave of terror attacks across France that left more than 250 people dead.

WHAT IS THE TRIGGER NOW?

In September this year, trial began in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack case. The magazine reprinted cartoons on Prophet Mohammed as the trial began.

This prompted, according to the French authorities, another terror attack, in which an 18-year-old man born in Pakistan injured two people with a meat cleaver in Paris in September-end. The French authorities said the target of the attacker was the Charlie Hebdo’s office, whose location is now a secret.

Macron announced his secular legislation plan in this backdrop. Days after he announced the plan, a teacher identified as Samuel Paty was beheaded in the outskirts of Paris. His attacker was identified as 18-year-old Abdullakh Anzorov, a Chechen Russian refugee in France. Anzorov was shot dead by police.

The victim had showed and discussed the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo in his classroom to emphasise freedom of speech and expression. Any caricature or depiction of Prophet Mohammed is considered as blasphemy by many in Islam.

The killing of Samuel Paty for his lecture on freedom of expression was condemned by the French society in general but it also saw some support for the attacker. To emphasise state neutrality on the matter of religion and absolute right of freedom of expression, the controversial cartoons were projected on some of the government buildings in France on Friday last week.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?

Mixing it with Macron’s announcement of secular legislation plan, speculation took off that France is moving towards targeting Muslims because of their religious belief. A host of countries have reacted angrily.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has emerged as the voice of hardliners among Muslims, launched a scathing attack on French President Macron.

“What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with Muslims? Macron needs treatment on a mental level,” Erdogan said.

He did not stop there. Erdogan further said, “What else can be said to a head of state who does not understand freedom of belief and who behaves in this way to millions of people living in his country who are members of a different faith?”

Following Erdogan’s comments, France recalled its ambassador to Turkey “for consultation”. France called Erdogan’s remark “unacceptable”. In an official statement, it said, “Excess and rudeness are not a method. We demand that Erdogan change the course of his policy because it is dangerous in every respect.”

WHO SAID WHAT ON MACRON?

Pakistan: Prime Minister Imran Khan slammed French President Macron saying he has said things about Islam without understanding the teachings of the religion. He also wrote a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seeking a ban “Islamophobia” on the social media platform.

It was followed by an official statement by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who said remarks such as the one made by French President Macron “will polarise the society and have serious consequences.”

Iran: Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “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.”

Similar reactions have come from other Islamic countries which called the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as an “insult” to Prophet Mohammed and denounced the statements made by Macron with regard to “Islamic separatism”.

WHAT IS THE SCALE OF PROTEST?

Besides the diplomatic and political opposition, France is facing serious boycott calls from traders and business unions in Islamic countries. Media reports suggest that some shopping malls in Qatar, Kuwait, Jordon, Syria, Libya and other countries have boycotted French products.

Beauty products and clothes from France have been in great demand in these countries, where traders’ unions – for example the Union of Consumer Co-operative Societies in Kuwait – have enforced a boycott call against French goods.

Calls for boycott of French supermarket chain Carrefour is trending on social media in countries including Saudi Arabia, the biggest economy of the region. In Qatar, Alwajba Dairy Company and Almeera Consumer Goods Company said they will boycott French products and will provide other alternatives.

Protests have been taking place in Turkey, Qatar, Jordon, Libya, Palestine (Gaza), parts of Syria, Morocco and Lebanon. Protest calling for boycott of French goods has taken place also in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

HOW HAS FRANCE REACTED?

France has called the controversy and calls for boycott unjustified as these are based on “baseless” narrative of the statement made by French President Macron. It said the boycott calls are being “pushed by a radical minority”.

France has appealed to the Middle-East countries to end the boycott calls over Macron’s secular legislation plan and defence of freedom of expression.

However, there is no relent in the stance taken by Macron, who took to Twitter to reaffirm that his country will “not give in” to pressures to suppress the idea of freedom of expression.

Macron wrote on Twitter: “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.”

He posted this tweet in Arabic also as he tried to reach out to people in the Arab world. Some people have linked the “hardening” secular stance of Macron with the French presidential election of 2022.


Backlash over French President Emmanuel Macron's comment on Islam explained