ISLAMABAD: French Ambassador to Pakistan Marc Baréty was on Monday summoned to the Foreign Office over republication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in France and President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-Islam comments and told that such actions cannot be condoned as freedom of expression.

“The Ambassador of France to Pakistan was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today to convey the deep concerns over the recent systematic resurgence of blasphemous acts of republication of caricatures of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and desecration of the Holy Quran by certain irresponsible elements,” the Foreign Office (FO) said in a statement.

The envoy was told that republication of caricatures was “illegal and Islamophobic” acts, which hurt the sentiments of Muslims across the world, including those in Pakistan. It was emphasised that such actions could not be justified in the name of freedom of expression, the FO added.

Ambassador Baréty was summoned a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan lashed out at the French president for “attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists” and “deliberately” provoking Muslims by “encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam & our Prophet PBUH”.

Minister says Pakistan will table a resolution against blasphemous depictions at OIC meeting

In a series of tweets, PM Khan said the sign of a leader was that he united people like former South African president Nelson Mandela. “This is a time when President Macron could have put [a] healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation,” he said. “By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world,” the premier said.

At a memorial ceremony for Samuel Paty, a teacher beheaded for showing the so-called caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to his students in his class, President Macron had said France would “not give up our cartoons” and vowed to fight Islamic “extremism” in his country.

The French president did not directly respond to PM Khan, but later in a tweet claimed: “We will not give in, ever. 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 side of human dignity and universal values.”

The FO said Ambassador Baréty was told that equating Islam with terrorism, for “narrow electoral and political gains” was condemnable and that such “provocative statements and actions were fanning inter-religious hatred, hostility and confrontation, thereby imperiling efforts of peace and harmony among various segments of society”.

Freedom of expression, it was underscored, should not be misused as means to attack or hurt public sentiments or religious beliefs and fan inter-religious hatred, hostility and confrontation. “Such actions and statements would further divide peoples and civilisations and undermine the global aspirations for peaceful co-existence as well as social and inter-faith harmony,” it added.

The FO said harmony among people and communities needed to be promoted instead of reinforcing stereotypes and alienating people, especially at a time when racism, intolerance and populism were growing.

Fuel to fire

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in a separate statement, said Mr Macron’s “irresponsible statement” had “added fuel to the fire”.

Mr Qureshi said Pakistan would present a resolution against Islamophobia and blasphemous depictions of Prophet Muhammad at the next meeting of the foreign ministers of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — the 57-member body that represents the Muslim world.

Also, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Religious Harmony Tahir Ashrafi said France had badly hurt the sentiments of Muslims in the month of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the Islamic month in which the Holy Prophet’s birth anniversary is celebrated.

Ban on hate content

Earlier, Prime Minister Khan had asked Facebook to place a ban on Islamophobia and hate against Islam just as it had placed on the Holocaust.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Khan said: “I am writing to draw your attention to the growing Islamophobia that is encouraging hate, extremism and violence across the world and especially through the use of social media platforms including Facebook. I appreciate your taking the step to rightly ban any posting that criticises or questions the Holocaust, which was the culmination of the Nazi pogrom of the Jews in Germany and across Europe as Nazis spread across Europe.”

A similar pogrom against Muslims could be witnessed in different parts of the world, he said.

“In India, anti-Muslim laws and measures such as CAA and NRC as well as targeted killings of Muslims and blaming Muslims for coronavirus are reflective of the abominable phenomenon of Islamophobia. In France, Islam has been associated with terrorism and publication of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam and our Holy Prophet (PBUH) has been allowed,” the prime minister wrote.

“Given the rampant abuse and vilification of Muslims on social media platforms, I would ask you to place a similar ban on Islamophobia and hate against Islam for Facebook that you have put in place for the Holocaust,” he added.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2020