DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Around 10,000 people in Bangladesh rallied in the South Asian nation's capital on Tuesday to protest France's president and his staunch support of secular laws that deem caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad as protected under freedom of speech.
Protesters from the conservative Islami Andolon Bangladesh group, which supports the introduction of Islamic law in the Muslim-majority country, carried banners and placards reading: “All Muslims of the world, unite” and “Boycott France.” It was the largest protest yet against the cartoons in recent days.
Some carried portraits of French President Emmanuel Macron with an “X” on his face. One protester carried a cutout image of the French president with shoes around his neck as a sign of insult.
The issue has once again come to light in recent days following a gruesome beheading near Paris of a French teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The 18-year-old Chechen refugee who carried out the attack was later shot dead by police.
The teacher, Samuel Paty, has been heralded as a symbol of France's staunch secular ideals and its rejection of religious intrusion in public spheres. Macron and members of his government have vowed to continue supporting such caricatures as protected under freedom of expression.
Muslim politicians, religious scholars and everyday people have condemned such depictions as a form of hate speech and view them as sacrilegious and insulting to Islam. Muslims have been calling for both protests and a boycott of French goods in response to France’s stance on caricatures of Islam’s most revered prophet.
Five years ago, French-born al-Qaida extremists killed 12 employees of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in response to its publication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Those cartoons also sparked mass protests in Muslim-majority countries, with some turning deadly.
Elsewhere, Iran summoned a French diplomat to protest France's stance on the caricatures. A report by state TV on Tuesday said an Iranian official in the country’s Foreign Ministry told the French diplomat that Paris’ response in the aftermath of Paty's killing was “unwise" and that France was permitting hatred against Islam under the guise of support for freedom of expression.
A powerful association of clerics in the Iranian city of Qom also urged the government to condemn Macron. Iranian hard-line newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz depicted Macron as the devil and called him Satan in a cartoon on its front page Tuesday.
Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution condemning the publication of cartoons of the prophet. On Tuesday, dozens of people in the southern port city of Karachi protested France’s refusal to condemn the publication. Demonstrators chanted slogans against Macron and then burned an effigy of him.
In Saudi Arabia, the country’s state-run Saudi Press Agency on Tuesday put out a statement from the Foreign Ministry saying the kingdom “rejects any attempt to link Islam and terrorism, and denounces the offensive cartoons of the prophet.” Saudi clerics have too condemned the caricatures, but have also cited the prophet’s “mercy, justice, tolerance”. Another prominent sheikh called on Muslims not to overreact.
The Arab Gulf state of Qatar also condemned what it described as “the dramatic escalation of populist rhetoric” inciting religious abuse. In a statement, the government said inflammatory speech is fueling calls for the repeated targeting of nearly 2 billion Muslims around the world through the deliberate offending of the Prophet Muhammad and has led to an increase in hostility toward Muslims.
Bangladeshi protesters gathered in front of the main Baitul Mokarram Mosque in downtown Dhaka Tuesday morning. The group walked toward the French Embassy, but police intercepted the march, which ended without violence.
Protests have also been held recently in Iraq, Turkey the Gaza Strip and in opposition areas of northwestern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed rebels.
Rezaul Karim, the head of the Islami Andolon group in Bangladesh, called on France to refrain from displaying caricatures of the prophet.
“We, the Muslims, never did caricatures of other religious leaders," he said.
"Allah sent the Prophet Muhammad as an ambassador of peace ... Macron and his associates did not learn anything from history,” he added, before calling on Muslims to boycott French goods.
Karim also said Macron should be treated for his “mental illness,” remarks similar to those made days earlier by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been the most vociferous in his criticism among political leaders in saying Macron needed his head examined and had lost his way. France has since recalled its ambassador to Turkey and other European nations have defended Macron.
Bangladesh's leadership, however, has not come out in criticism of France, as Turkey, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations have done. Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million mostly Muslim people, is governed by a secular constitution.
In the Middle East, Kuwaiti stores have pulled French yogurts, cheese and bottles of sparkling water from their shelves, Qatar University canceled a French culture week, and calls to stay away from the French-owned Carrefour grocery store chain were trending on social media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.