Erdoğan vs Macron: the pretext of Islam and political opportunism

The French president praises the professor beheaded by an extremist and defends freedom of expression. The Turkish president calls the Muhammad cartoons offensive, says Macron has mental problems, and urges a boycott of French products. In many parts of the Muslim world, the issue is an ideological clash between "us and them".

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – The call to boycott French products launched in Turkey yesterday by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has opened a new, ever-wider clash between Ankara and Paris, which risks leading to a (primarily trade) war between two opposing worlds.

Tensions were triggered by the murder of French professor Samuel Paty at the hands of an Islamic radical of Chechen origins on 16 October, after the teacher showed his students Charlie Hebdo's controversial Mohammed cartoons.

Europe has come to France’s defence, whilst the Muslim world – with a few nuances – has condemned the blasphemous gesture to defend the principles and values of the Muslim faith against the backdrop of a growing ideological conflict.

Yesterday in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, who has used nationalism and Islam to build his popular base, addressed a vitriolic speech to the nation asking his compatriots "not to buy French brands”, questioning Macron’s “sanity”.

According to the Turkish president, his French counterpart is on a "hate campaign" against Muslims, who are treated in Europe "like Jews at the time of the Second World War".

France and Turkey have long been at loggerheads over a number of international issues, such as Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean. The latest crisis, sparked by the controversial cartoons, prompted Macron to recall the French ambassador from Ankara for consultations.

Paying homage to the murdered teacher, the French leader noted that his country will continue to defend this kind of caricatures as an expression of freedom of thought, speech, and satire against obscurantism.

In the Muslim world, the controversy is seen as a question of respect for Islam over blasphemous acts that strike at the heart of the faith.

In recent days, at least 200 people protested in front of the residence of the French ambassador to Israel, whilst in the Gaza Strip protesters set fire to pictures of President Macron.

In Lebanon, the call to protest did not receive much support and the condemnations remain nuanced. However, the Shia-dominated Hezbollah movement called Macron’s statement a “deliberate insult”.

In North Africa, small protests were held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, with calls for a boycott on social media. The Moroccan Foreign Minister said that the "offensive cartoons" show the “immaturity” of their authors because freedom of expression must stop when "freedom and the belief of others begin”.

In north-western Syria, at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, which is held by pro-Turkish rebel extremists, a symbolic call was made to boycott French products,

In Jordan, the government said that "offending" the beliefs of others is not a sign of freedom, whilst in Kuwait the Foreign Minister met French diplomats for clarification, whilst classic French products, from cheese to cosmetics, disappeared from stores.

In Iraq, Rabat Allah, a newly-created pro-Iranian armed group, announced unspecified "reprisals". Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Macron of "attacking" Islam.

In Qatar, retailers like al-Meera and Souq al-Baladi removed French products from their shelves. In Egypt the Grand Imam al-Azhar Ahmad el-Tayeb slammed a "systematic campaign to drag Islam into political battles”. Calls for a boycott also came from Yemen.

In Iran, government circles criticised the French leader even though the Islamic Republic is opposed to Turkey on many international issues. The defence of Islam, either genuine or a pretext, goes beyond divisions among Muslim-majority countries.

For some analysts and experts, the controversy seems more an ideological and opportunistic battle because in many cases where Muslims endure real persecution (Uyghurs in China, Rohingya in Myanmar), Islamic countries are noticeable for their silence.

In any case, public debates between so-called purists of Islam and defenders of freedom seem to be polarising leaving little room for dialogue. In this binary world, it "us" versus "them" where never the twain shall meet.