On October 16th of 2020, Samuel Paty, a French teacher, was brutally decapitated at the age of 47 after showing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in a lecture about free speech. The terrorists perpetrating the attack attempted to justify their actions by claiming that the Islamic iconography of the Prophet is considered blasphemous as Islam strongly condemns any attempts of portraying the Prophet rooted in aniconism. The death of Paty was a catalyst for international outrage by both Muslims and the French public. This manifested in protests and calls for boycotting French products after President Emmanuel Macron backed the portrayal of Prophet Muhammad and gave a speech condemning the Muslim community, which was perceived to emulate Islamophobic sentiments.
Whilst the Arab community denounced these terrorist attacks, they also believe that Macron’s unwavering support for continuing the publication of these cartoons is symptomatic of an Islamophobic rhetoric. However, Macron went on to justify some of his verbiage, such as calling Islam “a religion that is in crisis all over the world today,” as necessary to put an end to Islamist extremism. In addition, he argues that France remains adamant about preserving the freedom of speech, which includes blasphemous language. He argued that the rising ideology of “Islamist Separatism,” which calls to “create a parallel order” to the French Republic, is a danger to French nationhood and the fundamental values France embodies. Whilst clarifying that these extremists are not representative of all Muslims, many Muslims remain angered at Macron’s refusal to condemn these cartoons that they believe to be a form of hate speech.
As Muslims across the globe were quick to express their displeasure with Macron through protests, the Arab world did not explicitly extend its sympathies for the cause out of fear of jeopardizing their relationship with France. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait expressed discontent over the portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, but did not openly callout France or Macron for their role in spreading these portraits. This restraint from criticism is believed to be entangled with their apprehension of jeopardizing their peaceful relations with France and to show comity to the West. Hence, massive boycotts of French products were primarily led by ordinary citizens and private businesses. Despite this, there was one country that was publicly spearheading the campaign to boycott France: Turkey.
Recep Erdogan, the President of Turkey, patently criticized France and Macron for their actions under the pretense that Islam is a fundamental pillar of Turkey’s identity. The international community, however, sees this reproval of Macron as an attempt by Turkey to assert itself as a regional hegemon while using the veil of Islamophobia to gain public support. This assertion has been furthered by Turkey’s continued involvement in the conflicts of Libya, Yemen, and Armenia. This year alone, tensions between these two NATO allies increased when France criticized Turkey for sending military support to Azerbaijan in the Armernian-Azerbaijan crisis. Turkey’s actions are the manifestation of their neo-Ottomanism policy, which promotes Turkey’s influence in the regions previously controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Erdogan’s direct insult to Macron, claiming he “need[ed] mental help,” is a further indication of the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the two countries. All of this is indicative of Turkey’s ambitions to become a major player on the international stage, signifying a shift in the region’s geopolitics.
These ambitions have also affected Turkey’s relations with countries in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is mainly due to Turkey establishing a military base in Qatar, which both aforementioned gulf countries saw as an act of aggression symbolizing Turkish desire to insert itself into the Gulf scene. Turkey’s actions further intensified the rising geopolitical tensions and signposts potential future conflict in the region. These rising tensions are not contained to the Gulf and France; it also extends to the rest of Europe.
Turkey has been eager to join the European Union (EU) since 1999 and has been negotiating with member states since 2005. Nonetheless, given the latest developments regarding Turkey’s involvement in global affairs, it seems like their membership will be prolonged even further. Turkey has not only criticized France for Macron’s remarks, they have also criticized Europe as a whole for what they claimed to be a collective rhetoric of Islamophobia perpetuated by the entire EU. This further compromises its ascension as it raises questions regarding Turkey’s intent to join the union. If they do not ideologically agree with the EU’s values, then it is likely that joining the EU will come across as disingenuous and solely as a means for economic and political gains. Moreover, the complete shift in their foreign policy regarding the EU, from negotiating membership to criticizing its role in international politics, is raising concerns over Turkey’s EU ambitions. As such, Macron – as a form of retaliation against Turkey – has been urging the EU to complete its vote on Turkey as a new possible member state as early as possible to ensure that the context in which the vote is occurring is disadvantageous to Turkey.
Essentially, although there are a multitude of geopolitical factors involved in understanding the significance of the boycott of French goods, there also exists a broader, more personal implication for many Muslims. Regardless of Turkey’s intentions, the outrage regarding Macron’s comments on freedom of expression raises the larger concern on the line between freedom of speech and hateful rhetoric. This is only fueled by France’s previous actions, which are accused to have echoed Islamophobic sentiments. A few instances include France’s ban on religious garments such as the Hijab, which has proved to have adverse effects on Muslim girls’ ability to complete their secondary education, as well as the shut down of the Grand Mosque by Macron as a punishment for terrorist attacks orchestrated by a few radical Muslims. Regardless of the President, the government of France as a whole is emulating this broader Islamophobic reaction. As such, despite Turkey’s actions indicating a geopolitical power struggle, Muslims’ support alludes to the fact that rising tensions between the West and East continue to escalate as a result of a fundamental lack of respect for Eastern religious traditions and culture.