France has called a boycott of its products in several Middle Eastern countries “baseless”, saying the move is being perpetuated by “a radical minority”.
Bolstered by social media, the campaign asks Arabs and Muslims not to buy French products in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s statements this month describing Islam as a religion in crisis.
Macron has drawn further anger from some Muslims for backing the publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the spirit of “freedom of expression”.
The prophet is deeply revered by Muslims and any kind of visual depiction is forbidden in Islam. The caricatures in question are seen by them as offensive and Islamophobic because they are perceived to link Islam with terrorism.
As the boycott dispute escalated, Macron on Sunday doubled down on his stance and promised that his country will not “give in, ever”.
“We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate,” he said on Twitter. “We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.”
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.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2020
Political leaders such as Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Turkey’s foreign minister and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have said Macron’s rhetoric alienates his country’s six million Muslims – the largest Muslim minority in Europe – and spreads a culture of hatred.
So what is behind the boycott of French products and the backlash against Macron’s comments on Islam?
Since 1905, France has adopted the laicite or secularism value, which forces the state to remain neutral – that is, to neither support nor stigmatise any religion.
With the collapse of the French empire following World War II, France’s largely homogenous society in the metropolitan areas changed overnight and became home to many former colonial subjects and their descendants, mainly from North and West Africa.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 26, 2020
Yet the country’s reaction towards Islam on its own turf, spurred in part by its traumatic defeat in Algeria, has led to regulations that have targeted the visibility of Islam. According to the state, French Muslims live in a counter-society.
In 2004, France became the first and only European country to ban the hijab, a veil worn by some Muslim women, in public schools. A few years later, it also passed a law that banned the wearing of the niqab, or face covering.
And while a 1978 law forbids the French state from collecting statistics on race, religion or ethnicity, the rise of Islamophobia in recent years has been documented by human rights and civil society groups such as the Collective against Islamophobia in France, also known as CCIF.
Macron’s comments of seeking to reform Islam – a religion that is more than 1,400 years old and is followed by two billion people around the world – is an ambitious and provocative move; several activists have said the government should instead invest more effort in addressing the marginalisation of French Muslims in the banlieues, or surburban ghettos in the country.
Residents of these areas, often with ancestry in Africa and the Middle East, say they feel alienated; they suffer from high levels of unemployment and poor social housing. They believe they are marginalised in every sense of the word – public transport from the banlieues to the centre of Paris, for instance, is severely lacking.
Since 2012, there have been 36 attacks carried out by a fringe minority of Muslims on French soil.
Yet instead of tackling the root causes of this phenomenon – which some, including Macron himself, have argued include social alienation, the state instead has turned its attention to focusing on the entirety of its Muslim citizens, as though they are a monolith, while not directing the same energy towards white supremacists and Nazis in the country.
Macron has promised to put forward a draft law on December 9 to combat what he terms “Islamist separatism” by banning the “importation” of foreign-financed and trained imams.
He is also proposing tax breaks and state funding to mosques that sign a charter accepting French principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of law.
These measures in an increasingly populist political environment against France’s embattled Muslim community could be seen in the context of shoring up Macron’s base ahead of the 2022 presidential elections.
Immediately following his “Islam in crisis” speech, several analysts said Macron was pandering to the far right.
Currently, Macron is polling neck and neck with far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who outwardly espouses Islamophobic views. In 2017, Macron and Le Pen made it to the second and final round of the election; he is desperately trying to avoid the same scenario emerging in two years’ time.
But sometimes, little differentiates his administration’s commentary on Muslims from the populists.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said France is fighting a “civil war”: secularism against “Islamist separatism”. He has also called for ethnic food aisles in supermarkets to be shut down – a statement that was immediately mocked on social media.
Last month, a parliamentarian and member of Macron’s En Marche party, said a hijab-wearing citizen is somehow incompatible with participation in the public and civic sphere.
“I cannot accept that someone comes to participate in our work at the National Assembly wearing a hijab,” Anne-Christine Lang said, before walking out in protest against the presence of a Muslim woman in the headscarf at the institution.
Two years earlier, Macron himself said that the hijab was “not in accordance with the civility of our country”.
It is against this backdrop that Macron has irked Muslims around the world.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused Macron of being divisive and encouraging Islamophobia.
“This is a time when Pres[ident] Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation,” Khan said in a series of tweets.
It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists. Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, incl his own citizens,
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) October 25, 2020
On Friday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned what it said was France’s continued attack against Muslims.
The OIC said it was surprised that offensive rhetoric was being used by top officials, and warned that this moment, for the sake of political party gains, could fuel hatred.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry has also weighed in and criticised discriminatory policy linking Islam to terrorism, saying it “represents a falsification of reality, insults the teachings of Islam and offends the feelings of Muslims around the world”.
Jordan’s foreign ministry did not criticise Macron directly but condemned the “continued publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad under the pretext of freedom of expression”. It also denounced any “discriminatory and misleading attempts that seek to link Islam with terrorism”.
Turkey’s foreign minister said Europe’s “spoiled” politicians must stop their “fascist mindset”.
“When truth is spoken to their faces, Europe’s loser racists show up and try to exploit Islamophobia and xenophobia. Time has come to stop Europe’s spoiled politicians with fascist mindset,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said.