DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Muslims in the Middle East and beyond Monday broadened their calls for boycotts of French products and protests, as a clash over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and the limits of free speech intensified.
Kuwaiti stores pulled French yogurts and bottles of sparkling water from their shelves, Qatar University canceled a French culture week, and calls to stay away from the Carrefour grocery store chain were trending on social media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Protests have been held in Iraq, Turkey and the Gaza Strip, and Pakistan's parliament passed a resolution condemning the publication of cartoons of the prophet.
The beheading this month of a French teacher who had shown caricatures of the prophet in class has again ignited a debate over such depictions – which Muslims consider blasphemous. The growing confrontation is raising political tensions between France and some Muslim-majority nations, especially Turkey, and could put pressure on French companies. Other European countries have also entered the fray in support of France.
The teacher, who was killed by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, has been heralded at home as a national symbol of France's dearly held secular ideals.
French President Emmanuel Macron has vigorously defended such depictions as protected by the right to free speech. At a memorial for the teacher last week, Macron said: “We won't renounce the caricatures.”
On Sunday, he appeared to double down. In tweets published in both Arabic and English, he wrote: “We will not give in, ever.” He added, however, that France does not accept hate speech and respects all differences.
His government plans a bill aimed at rooting out what Macron calls “Islamist separatism,” which he contends has created a parallel culture in France, one that rejects French laws and norms. While he blamed some of this separatism on France's brutal colonial past in North Africa, he was quoted as saying Islam is “a religion that is in crisis all over the world.”
On Twitter, some criticized what they said is France's hypocrisy and bias against Muslims. One cartoon widely shared put forth the argument that caricatures of Muslims are defended in “The West” as fair game under freedom of speech protections, while caricatures of Jews are labeled hate speech.
Muslim scholars have condemned the caricatures, but some also sought to curb swelling anger.
Saudi Arabia's senior council of clerics issued a statement saying that defamation of the Prophet Muhammad only serves extremists who want to spread hatred. While denouncing insults against Islam, the clerics also cited the prophet's “mercy, justice, tolerance” in their statement.
The head of the Saudi-based Muslim World League, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, told a Saudi news channel that while the caricatures are insulting, the prophet's influence and status are greater than any impact from such drawings. He said Muslims should not overreact.