DHAKA: Activists and supporters of the Islami Andolon Bangladesh, a Islamist political party, hold a protest march yesterday calling for the boycott of French products and denouncing French president Emmanuel Macron for his comments. – AFP

DHAKA: Tens of thousands of protesters marched through the Bangladesh capital yesterday in the biggest anti-France rally since President Emmanuel Macron defended cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Muslims across the world have reacted furiously to Macron’s robust defense of the right to mock religion following the murder of a French schoolteacher who had shown his pupils cartoons of the prophet.

In Syria people burned pictures of France’s leader, tricolor flags were torched in the Libyan capital Tripoli, while French goods have been pulled from supermarket shelves in Qatar, Kuwait and other Gulf states. Protesters in Dhaka set alight to an effigy of Macron during yesterday’s march in which police said 40,000 people took part. Hundreds of armed officers used a barbed-wire barricade to stop the demonstrators, who dispersed without violence before they could get close to the French embassy in the Bangladeshi capital.

The rally was called by Islami Andolon Bangladesh (IAB), one of the country’s largest Islamist parties, and started at the biggest mosque in the nation, which is around 90 percent Muslim. “Boycott French products”, demonstrators chanted as they called for Macron to be punished. Ataur Rahman, a senior Islami Andolon member, told the rally at the Baitul Mukarram national mosque: “Macron is one of the few leaders who worship Satan.”

Rahman called on the Bangladesh government to “kick out” the French ambassador while another protest leader, Hasan Jamal, said activists would “tear down every brick of that building” if the envoy was not ordered out. “France is the enemy of Muslims. Those who represent them are also our enemies,” said Nesar Uddin, a young leader of the group. Even after the rally was halted, demonstrators marched down other streets chanting “Boycott France” and “Macron will pay a high price”.

Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov yesterday accused Macron of provoking Muslims and compared the French leader to a “terrorist”. In a strongly-worded statement, the head of Russia’s Muslim-majority southern region condemned Macron. “The president of France is himself beginning to look like a terrorist,” 44-year-old Kadyrov said in the statement on the Telegram messaging app. “By supporting provocations, he covertly calls on Muslims to commit crimes.”

He claimed that Macron’s stance offended nearly 2 billion Muslims across the world, saying such policies could have “tragic” consequences. “Until it’s too late, Macron, stop your provocations and attacks on faith. Otherwise you will go down in history as a president who has taken mad decisions,” Kadyrov added. “You can easily call yourself the leader and architect of terrorism in your country.”

French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded earlier this month by Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old ethnic Chechen who was born in Moscow but later moved to France with his parents. The beheading has left France in shock. Kadyrov has said that Anzorov had no links to Chechnya.

Saudi Arabia condemned cartoons offending Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but held back from echoing calls by other Muslim states for action against images being displayed in France of the Prophet (PBUH). A foreign ministry official also said in a statement that the Gulf state condemns all acts of terrorism, an apparent reference to the beheading of the Paris teacher.

“Freedom of expression and culture should be a beacon of respect, tolerance and peace that rejects practices and acts which generate hatred, violence and extremism and are contrary to coexistence,” said the statement carried by state media. Saudi Arabia’s daily Arab News yesterday cited the head of the Saudi-based Muslim World League, Mohammed Al-Issa, as cautioning that an overreaction “that is negative and goes beyond what is acceptable” would only benefit “haters”.

In Saudi Arabia, calls for a boycott of French supermarket chain Carrefour were trending on social media, though stores Reuters visited in Riyadh on Monday seemed busy as normal. A company representative in France said it had yet to feel any impact. United Arab Emirates-based Majid Al Futtaim, which owns and operates Carrefour supermarkets across the Middle East, said the chain supported regional economies by sourcing most items from local suppliers and employing thousands of people.

‘Offensive cartoons’
As the backlash over France’s reaction to the cartoons widened, leaders from European nations including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Greece rallied behind Macron. However, Islamic and Muslim-majority nations have hit out and protesters have taken to the streets, though not in near the numbers seen in Dhaka.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has styled himself a defender of Muslims worldwide -has compared the treatment of Muslims in Europe to that of Jews before World War II, saying they were the object of a “lynching campaign”. “You are in a real sense fascists, you are in a real sense the links in the chain of Nazism,” he said, after urging Macron to have “mental checks”.

Tehran has summoned a senior French envoy, the charge d’affaires. Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim slammed Macron’s comments on Islam being in crisis as “offensive” and “unreasonable”, adding in a statement: “With freedom comes responsibility, a responsibility notably absent from the rabblerousing smears essayed by Monsieur le President.”

Macron has also drawn fire in Pakistan and Morocco, while the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, the Taleban in Afghanistan and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah have also spoken out against France. More demonstrations were planned yesterday in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and South Yemen. – AFP