French President Emmanuel Macron says he understands the feelings of Muslims who are shocked by the displaying of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad but added that the “radical Islam” he is trying to fight is a threat to all people, especially Muslims.
Macron’s comments to Al Jazeera, in an exclusive interview to be aired in full on Saturday, come amid heightened tensions between the French government and the Muslim world over the cartoons, which Muslims consider to be blasphemous.
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“I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights,” Macron said.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he added.
Macron also hit out at what he described as “distortions” from political leaders, saying people were often led to believe that the caricatures were a creation of the French state.
“I think that the reactions came as a result of lies and distortions of my words because people understood that I supported these cartoons,” the president said in the interview.
“The caricatures are not a governmental project, but emerged from free and independent newspapers that are not affiliated with the government,” he added.
Macron was referring to the recent republishing of the caricatures by the Charlie Hebdo magazine to mark the opening of the trial for a deadly attack against its staff in 2015 when the Paris-based publication’s cartoons were cited as a reason for the assault.
The president had defended the “right to blaspheme” under free speech rights at the time of the republication in September, weeks before he prompted backlash from Muslim activists on October 2 when he claimed in a speech that Islam was “in crisis globally” and announced his plan “to reform Islam” in order to make it more compatible with his country’s republican values.
Macron reiterated his stance about the cartoons after a French teacher, who showed the caricatures to his pupils in class during a discussion on free speech, was beheaded by an attacker on October 16. Last week, the depictions were projected on French government buildings.
‘Muslims the first victims’
While Muslims in France have condemned the killing of the teacher, they have also expressed fears of collective punishment amid a government crackdown targeting Islamic organisations and attacks by vigilante groups on mosques.
Meanwhile, Macron’s comments stirred anger across the Muslim world, leading tens of thousands of people – from Pakistan to Bangladesh to the Palestinian territories – to join anti-France protests. As a debate over Islam and freedom of expression deepened in recent weeks, many officials and protesters in Muslim-majority countries issued calls for a boycott of French-made products.
The Prophet Muhammad 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.
“Today in the world there are people who distort Islam and in the name of this religion that they claim to defend, they kill, they slaughter … today there is violence practised by some extremist movements and individuals in the name of Islam,” Macron said.
“Of course this is a problem for Islam because Muslims are the first victims,” he added. “More than 80 percent of the victims of terrorism are Muslims, and this is a problem for all of us.”
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, said Macron’s comments appeared to be “an attempt at clarifying … where he stands on issues that are of importance to France and the Muslim world”.
“I think the damage is done. But I’m not sure it needs to continue to escalate, because at the end of the day … there is no winner. Europe standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a number of countries in the Muslim world over cultural and religious issues and interpretations of these issues,” Bishara said.
“No one is a winner, and if there are any losers, it will be a lot of the Muslims in Europe. So it is in everyone’s interest if the French president is sincere about contextualising and about backtracking some of the things he said – that he now understands clearly that they were controversial, and he did not mean to criticise Islam as a religion – that should begin to improve the atmosphere between France, Europe, and the Muslim world.”
France was sent into further shock on Thursday when a knife-wielding Tunisian man killed three people at a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice. That same day, a Saudi man stabbed and lightly wounded a security guard at the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Leaders of many Muslim countries offered their condolences to France after the Nice attack and expressed their solidarity as they condemned the violence.
In another incident on Saturday, an attacker wounded a Greek Orthodox priest in a shooting in Lyon before fleeing, according to reports. The motive was not immediately clear.