Macron’s defense of free speech after the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty, 47, has led to an explosion of protests in Muslim countries, primarily Bangladesh. Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old man with a Chechen background, Abdoulakh A, after he showed cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad to students. The caricatures were originally published by the French farcical magazine Charlie Hebdo, leading to an attack at the magazine’s headquarters in 2015. They resurfaced as the trial for the attack recently opened. Macron sympathized with Muslims who were offended by the cartoons, but also said he will continue to try to fight radical Islam. In response to Macron not condemning the cartoons and upholding free speech, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, led a protest of 10,000 people through the capital of Dhaka on October 27th demanding a boycott of French products and the severing of diplomatic ties with France. France is one of the largest export destinations for Bangladesh’s readymade garments products (RMG), according to Al Jazeera. AP News commented that protestors were carrying banners saying, “All Muslims of the world, unite” and “Boycott France” as well as burning effigies of Macron and holding cut-outs of him with shoes around his neck. Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has not made any public comments on the issue. Protests also occurred in Pakistan, Turkey, and Indonesia. Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, told Al Jazeera that Bangladeshi citizens have been mobilizing more around Islam, and the government is allowing them to assemble to support “its assertion that the country is a functioning democracy.”
Reuters quoted Junayed Babungari, secretary-general of Hefazat-e-Islam at the protest, saying, “We are giving an ultimatum to the government to end diplomatic ties with France within 24 hours. If our demands are not met, we will announce our next course of action…Macron should beg for forgiveness.” French politicians countered with claims that a reverse boycott should come from France. Al Jazeera quoted Virginie Joron, a French member of the European Parliament saying, “Bangladesh economy is largely based on the textile industry. Western distributors must stop purchasing clothing. Let’s stop trading with those who hate us and favor localism.” French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen advocated for a ban on Bangladeshi immigrants. Macron himself commented, “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. I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” according to Al Jazeera.
The government of Bangladesh did make a blanket statement after Paty’s murder that there should be “a more nuanced global conversation on peaceful religious practice” and that “all sides [should] exercise the freedom of expression responsibly.” The protests bring up an important debate over whether complete free speech should be permissible, or whether there should be respectful censorship. The key point that the Bangladeshi government brought up is that freedom of speech should be exercised responsibly. People should be able to speak freely about their views without being in fear of retaliation, but at the same time, they should be aware of the effects that their speech might have. For example, a newspaper must be mindful that the Muslim population will be offended by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and make a responsible decision to not publish them. However, in private spaces where people are not influencing large audiences, people can express their views. After Paty’s murder, the Prophet Mohammed cartoons were projected on town halls in two cities, Montpellier and Toulouse. This was irresponsible in that it was insensitive to the Muslim population who were still triggered by the caricatures. If French citizens make the effort to be aware of how their speech in public arenas is affecting the larger population, there would be less pushback by Islamist groups. Conversely, if French citizens tolerate anti-Muslim speech among themselves, they should also allow Muslims to express their own potentially anti-Western views through responsible outlets.
Al Jazeera quoted Adnan Habib, a Dhaka-based banker, saying, “To be frank, the idea of severing ties with France on this is unrealistic under the present global context.” Given these strong French-Bangladeshi ties, it is reasonable to expect that commerce and diplomacy between the countries will continue. French companies also have investments in Bangladesh in energy, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications, according to Al Jazeera. Macron has tried to protect French interests in Bangladesh by claiming that the anger against the French state stems from Muslims believing that the cartoons were originated from the French government itself, and noted that this is not the case.
The debate over free speech continues to be a controversial and crucial topic. “Responsible” censorship is hard to define. Moving forward, the French government should aim to have open conversations with the Muslim population in the country about what constitutes fair free speech. As long as either side remains closed to the other, there will be no progress on the issue.
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