The head of a United Nations anti-extremism body has expressed “deep concern” over growing tensions over satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, urging “mutual respect” between people of different faiths and political views.
The statement on Wednesday by Miguel Angel Moratinos – who heads the UN Alliance of Civilizations – follows growing anger in the Muslim world over France’s response to the beheading of a teacher who had shown his pupils the images as part of a class on free speech.
President Emmanuel Macron has vigorously defended the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet on free speech grounds, sparking angry protests across swathes of the Muslim world and campaigns to boycott French products.
“The inflammatory caricatures have also provoked acts of violence against innocent civilians who were attacked for their sheer religion, belief or ethnicity,” Moratinos said in the statement, without explicitly referring to Macron’s defense of the images.
“Insulting religions and sacred religious symbols provoke hatred and violent extremism leading to polarisation and fragmentation of the society,” he warned.
The statement said freedom of religion and freedom of expression are “interdependent, interrelated and mutually re-enforcing rights” rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Upholding and protecting these fundamental rights is the primary responsibility of member states,” the statement read.
Many activists have criticized France for attacking sacred symbols of minorities in the name of freedom of speech.
Muslim world outraged
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized Macron, saying the French leader needed “mental checks” over his attitude towards Islam.
Top officials in the Muslim world have condemned France and Macron, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Iran; while tens of thousands have attended protests in Bangladesh calling for a boycott of French goods.
Tensions heated further on Wednesday after the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a new caricature depicting Erdogan.
In response, the Turkish president has threatened to sue the magazine.
Amid the escalating row, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote a letter on Wednesday to the leaders of Muslim-majority countries, asking them “to act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states”.
Khan said leaders of these countries did not understand the “love and devotion Muslims all over the world have for their Prophet and their divine book the Holy Quran”.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called the French president’s defense of cartoons depicting the Prophet a “stupid act” and an “insult” to those who voted for him.