At least 50,000 people have staged the biggest demonstration yet in Bangladesh over French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance on the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as they tried to reach the French embassy in Dhaka, police said.
Macron’s comment that Islam was “in crisis” and his defence of the offensive caricature, which Muslims say is an insult to their prophet, has prompted a global backlash, with Muslims across the world holding protests and calling for a boycott of French products.
The rally, which started at Bangladesh’s biggest mosque in the capital Dhaka, was stopped from getting close to the French embassy where security had been stepped up.
The march was more than two kilometres (1.25 miles) long and crowds – ignoring coronavirus social distancing rules – carried effigies of Macron, caricatures and a fake coffin for the French president.
Police estimated some 50,000 people took part in the protest, which demanded a boycott of French products, while organisers said there were more than 100,000 people.
Protesters chanted “No defamation of the Prophet Muhammad” and burned an effigy of the French leader.
Police put up a barbed wire barricade across a major road to stop the demonstrators getting close to Dhaka’s embassy district and the event broke up without trouble.
Macron sparked protests across the Muslim world after the murder last month of French teacher Samuel Paty – who had shown his class a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad – by saying France would never renounce its laws permitting blasphemous caricatures.
The third major anti-France demonstration in Bangladesh in the past week was called by Hefazat-i-Islam, one of the biggest Muslim political groups in the country of 160 million people.
Bangladesh’s government has so far not commented on France or the protests.
‘Throw away French products’
Many people came from towns outside Dhaka to take part in the rally.
Junaid Babunagaori, deputy chief of Hefazat-i-Islam, called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to move the Bangladesh parliament to condemn Macron.
“I call on traders to throw away French products. I ask the UN to take stern action against France,” he told the rally.
Other Hefazat leaders said Macron must apologise to Muslims around the world.
The French president, in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, said he understood the feelings of Muslims but maintained that the “radical Islam” he is trying to fight is a threat to all people, especially Muslims.
Macron’s comments come amid heightened tensions between the French government and the Muslim world over the cartoons, which Muslims consider to be blasphemous.
“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.
Indonesians protests against France
But Macron’s defence has not convinced Muslims. On Monday, Indonesian Muslims marched to the heavily guarded France Embassy in the capital Jakarta.
Waving white flags bearing the Islamic declaration of faith, more than 2,000 demonstrators, many wearing white robes, filled a major thoroughfare in downtown Jakarta.
Authorities blocked streets leading to the embassy where more than 1,000 police and soldiers were deployed in and around the building barricaded with razor wire.
The protesters chanted “God is Great” and “Boycott French products” as they marched. Their banners and placards slammed French President Macron, and some protesters stomped on Macron posters in the blocked streets. Smaller protests also occurred in other Indonesian cities, including in Surabaya, Makassar, Medan and Bandung.
On Saturday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo strongly condemned the attacks in Paris and Nice as well as remarks by Macron that were deemed offensive toward Islam and Muslims.
Widodo said freedom of expression that tarnishes the honour, sanctity and sacredness of religious values and symbols could not be justified and must be stopped.
“Linking religion with terrorist acts is a big mistake,” Widodo said. “Terrorism is terrorism, terrorists are terrorists, terrorism has nothing to do with any religion.”