Anger towards Emmanuel Macron grows in Muslim world

Michael Safi in Beirut, Redwan Ahmed in Dhaka, Akhtar Mohammad Makoii in Herat and Shah Meer Baloch in Islamabad
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

On the front page of a hardline Iranian newspaper, he was the “Demon of Paris”. In the streets of Dhaka he was decried as a leader who “worships Satan”. Outside Baghdad’s French embassy, a likeness of Emmanuel Macron was burned along with France’s flag.

Rage is growing across the Muslim world at the French president and his perceived attacks on Islam and the prophet Muhammad, leading to calls for boycotts of the French products and security warnings for France’s citizens in majority-Muslim states.

The backlash has cut across an extraordinarily diverse Muslim world with a myriad of cultures, sects, political systems and levels of economic development. It has stoked historical and present-day grievances from the markets of Herat in Afghanistan to the upmarket neighbourhoods of Amman and the universities of Islamabad.

Tension has simmered since September when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the prophet Muhammad on the eve of a trial of 14 people accused of involvement in a terrorist attack against the publication’s offices in 2015 for publishing the same caricatures.

Charlie Hebdo risked further inflaming tensions with Turkey by placing a cartoon mocking president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the front page of its edition published online on Tuesday night. Erdogan’s top press aide, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted: “We condemn this most disgusting effort by this publication to spread its cultural racism and hatred.”

It was fuelled by a speech Macron gave earlier this month announcing his intention to fight “Islamist separatism”, in which he described the faith as one “that is in crisis all over the world today”, prompting objections from several Muslim leaders and commentators.

A fortnight later, the French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his school for showing his class the Muhammad cartoons. The murder, said to have been carried out by a young Muslim of Chechen origin, has prompted raids on several accused violent extremists and Islamic groups.

Several French cities responded by projecting caricatures of the Islamic prophet on the walls of buildings as a gesture of defiance and defence of secularism, and Macron told a vigil in Paris that his country “would not give up cartoons”.

The most recent protests were in the Bangladesh capital on Tuesday, where police estimated about 40,000 were involved in a demonstration organised by the country’s largest Islamist party.

Ahmad Abdul Quaiyum, a party leader who had addressed the crowd and called Macron a satanist, told the Guardian he was provoked by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that were broadcast on to the walls of several French cities last week as a gesture of defiance after Paty’s death.

Women in Jordan protests against Macron
A small number of Jordanians gathered in Amman, Jordan, to protest on 27 October. Photograph: EPA

“It’s prohibited to draw Muhammad,” Quaiyum said. “And what did they do? Not only drew him, but depicted him in a disgraceful way and Macron projected it on a multistorey building with police protection. That is very insulting, hurtful and unacceptable.”

Even to less fiery observers in Bangladesh, Macron’s defence of the right to caricature Islam’s prophet provoked deep disquiet. “The French president said this is their right to talk, their right of expression, but I don’t think free speech means disrespecting other religious beliefs,” said Fida Hasan, 26, a Dhaka-based doctor.

“I don’t condone the killing of the teacher or the killing of [Paty’s] murderer,” he added. “But it’s a two-way street. If no one makes hateful comments targeting the core beliefs of another religion, this kind of heinous violence will be reduced anyway.”

The perception that the French leader was seeking to remould Islam touched deep wounds, said Asma Barlas, a retired professor of political science at the University of Ithaca in New York.

“Emmanuel Macron is following in the centuries’ old tradition of Europeans telling Muslims how we need to interpret, or live, our religion – which Europeans rarely tell people of other religious faiths – because of the actions of a handful of Muslims,” she said.

French colonisation of several majority Islamic countries in Africa was prominent in the minds of many Muslims, who saw its echoes in the way the entire faith was stigmatised for the actions of a small number of violent extremists, Barlas added.

Related: Macron’s clash with Islam sends jolt through France’s long debate about secularism

“Europe has also had a long history with non-Muslim terrorists but their actions were rarely, if ever, attributed to ‘Christianity’,” she said. “Naturally, Muslims who aren’t terrorists – which would be 99.99% of us – are enraged by the way in which our religion is anathematised.”

Macron’s remarks have also been prominently aired in Jordan, including on state-sponsored programmes that usually tread carefully when discussing inflammatory topics, and many people have changed their social-media profile pictures to add a frame with the demand, “Respect Muhammad”.

Protesters in Palestine
A protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestine, against president Macron’s remarks on 27 October. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

There, too, colonial history was still fresh and evoked a stinging sense of loss, said Mohammad Faoury, 33, who works for an international aid organisation in Amman.

“I am seeing people bring up France’s colonial past and pictures of French soldiers holding the severed heads of Algerian resistance members,” he said. “People think of Macron’s statement as direct attack on their identity and culture. They feel insulted.”

He did not rule out that governments in some Muslim states saw an opportunity to gin up popular support by demonising Macron, but said the feelings of outrage were genuine.

Iran on Tuesday summoned France’s top diplomat in the country to protest Macron’s “anti-Islam stances” amid widespread fury – reflected and stoked by newspaper front pages that depicted the French leader as a devil and a terrorist.

Mohammad Reza Vahidzade, a researcher in Tehran, said Macron’s support for the cartoons was hypocritical, referencing the French leader’s 2019 condemnation of the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for endorsing a social-media comment critical of Macron’s wife.

“Macron said in a press conference that Bolsonaro doesn’t have the right to insult his wife and he doesn’t deserve presidency at all,” said Vahidzade. “But he gives himself and others in the west the right to insult a prophet who is respected by millions of people around the world.”

Maria Liaqat, a philosophy student at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, said she considered Macron’s approach to be “Islamophobic” and needlessly provocative. “[But] killing Paty was a brutal act, it’s not the solution to kill a human because of their personal views,” she said.

Leaders such as the prime minister Imran Khan were also happy to stoke the anger for their own ends, she added. “Khan is using this matter just to distract our attention from the crippling economy and bad governance,” she said. “Boycotting French goods is not the solution, but sadly the majority of the country may support it.”