Tehran, Iran – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has denounced France’s treatment of Islam, adding that Western support for cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad is unethical and insulting to Muslims.
In a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the president said freedom must be accompanied by a respect for values and consideration of ethics.
“Westerners must understand the great Prophet of Islam is loved by all Muslims and freedom-lovers of the world,” Rouhani said.
“Insulting the Prophet is insulting all Muslims. Insulting the Prophet is insulting all prophets, human values, and amounts to undermining ethics.”
The Prophet is deeply revered by Muslims and any kind of visual depiction of him is forbidden in Islam. The French caricatures in question are seen by Muslims as offensive and Islamophobic because they are perceived to link Islam with terrorism.
The images are regularly published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They were cited as the reason behind a deadly attack launched on the magazine’s offices in early 2015 by two al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
On October 16 this year, French teacher Samuel Paty was murdered in broad daylight near his school in a suburb of Paris after he showed the caricatures to his students as part of a discussion on freedom of expression.
Muslim leaders offered their condolences and support to France after the killing. However, since then, there have been rising concerns that Muslim communities in France would suffer collective punishment as the authorities roll out their response to the killing of Paty.
French and European leaders have come out in support for the right to display the caricatures, citing freedom of expression.
“We will not give in, ever,” Macron wrote in a series of tweets on Sunday evening in French, Arabic and English. “We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the idea of human dignity and universal values.”
This support, as well as comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, who on October 2 said Islam was in “crisis”, have prompted a backlash by Muslims around the world.
Muslim leaders and organisations have condemned Europe’s stance, and several Muslim countries are supporting a campaign to boycott French goods.
Iran’s religious leaders have not called for a boycott of French goods. But Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, chairman of the influential Expediency Council, on Tuesday welcomed other Muslim countries’ support for a ban on French products.
“It was a very good move and we hope that others follow on this path,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the French chargé d’affaires to protest against Macron’s comments and his support for the right to keep showing the caricatures.
Public and student protests are expected to take place on Wednesday in front of the French embassy in Tehran’s Neauphle-le-Chateau street, featuring public prayers and speeches by clerics.
Political analyst and Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi said the world’s Muslims were “shocked” by Macron’s position.
“Europeans have set a number of red lines for themselves in terms of freedom of speech, including the Holocaust,” Marandi told Al Jazeera.
“But not only do they insult what other people hold sacred, in this case, those of almost two billion Muslims, they support and propagate it as well.”
Over the past few days, figures and groups across the Iranian political spectrum have united to condemn the French and European stance.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday Muslims were “the primary victims of the ‘cult of hatred’ – empowered by colonial regimes and exported by their own clients,” and that insulting all Muslims for the crimes of “such extremists… only fuels extremism”.
Muslims are the primary victims of the "cult of hatred"—empowered by colonial regimes & exported by their own clients.
Insulting 1.9B Muslims—& their sanctities—for the abhorrent crimes of such extremists is an opportunistic abuse of freedom of speech.
It only fuels extremism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) October 26, 2020
Other officials, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the speaker of parliament, and adviser to the supreme leader slammed Macron, who they said is pursuing a “foolish enmity” with the Prophet Muhammad in part due to “his lack of experience in politics”.
On Monday, 240 members of the conservative-majority Iranian parliament issued a joint statement against what they called the “anti-human” French stance, adding that the “audacity and arrogance” of the French president had nothing to do with freedom of speech and was part of a larger plan against Islam and Muslims.
The Iranian army said in a statement on Tuesday that: “Those who claim to champion human rights are generalising the actions of one … to the whole of Islam”.
A number of Iranian media outlets and newspapers have also dedicated their front pages to the controversy.
Conservative daily newspaper Vatan-e-Emrooz ran a large depiction of a red-faced Macron as the devil: “Iblis of Paris” was the headline.
The Keyhan daily published an editorial calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador as the “least of responses to Macron’s obscenity”.
It has called for the French ambassador’s expulsion multiple times in recent years in response to controversies in Europe concerning Iran and Muslims.