Erdogan’s Call for French Boycott Might Divide Muslim World

Leaders from Pakistan to Algeria expressed unease over the French president’s crackdown on radical Islam.

Erdogan’s Call for French Boycott Might Divide Muslim World
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, arrives for a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg)

Emmanuel Macron faced the prospect of a widening rift with Muslim countries after leaders from Pakistan to Algeria expressed unease over the French president’s crackdown on radical Islam.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the way on Monday with a call on Turks to boycott French goods over what he called France’s hostile stance toward Islam, as he seized yet another opportunity to promote himself as a leader of the Muslim world.

Erdogan’s Call for French Boycott Might Divide Muslim World

While others joined in the condemnation, the immediate economic impact fell on Turkey rather than France, with the lira and stocks dropping as investors gauged Erdogan’s comments as a sign of renewed tensions between Ankara and the west more broadly.

Erdogan has been feuding with Macron over the French leader’s characterization of Islam as a religion “in crisis” and a crackdown on Islamists after the beheading of a French teacher, accusing him of displaying intolerance and saying he needs “mental checks.” For his part, Macron, who faces presidential elections in 18 months, is channeling public outrage over the murder as he presents a hard line on extremism to the outside world.

Shelves Empty

“Both sides are using it for domestic reasons,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics. “President Macron is using this tragedy to impress his critics and show that he is as muscular as they are,” while President Erdogan “is doing the same thing: Erdogan has mastered the art of using the sacred as a mobilization tool not just in Turkey but in the wider Islamic world.”

Erdogan’s call feeds into a campaign to boycott French goods that began rippling across the Arab world on social media over the weekend. Some supermarkets began pulling French cheese, yogurt and beauty supplies off their shelves. There were also pleas to stay away from Carrefour SA, the French supermarket chain.

France said the “baseless” calls were being pushed by “a radical minority,” and that a wave of cyber attacks was affecting French websites. France has called Erdogan’s personal sleights on Macron unacceptable, and withdrew its ambassador to Turkey.

Saudi Ends Silence

It’s unclear how widespread the boycott will reach. Early responses suggest countries are dividing along contentious regional lines, with Turkey and its allies on one side and Saudi Arabia and its supporters on the other.

Ali Shamkhani, director of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said on Twitter that “#Macron’s irrational behavior in public #AntiIslamism shows his crudeness in politics,” while the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a statement condemning “the great escalation of populist rhetoric inciting the abuse of religions.”

Saudi Arabia’s government on Tuesday issued its first official response. It denounced cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and rejected any attempt to tie Islam to terrorism. That followed a communique on Sunday by the state-appointed council of senior scholars, which also condemned the caricatures and said that while the defamation of the Prophet won’t hurt him, it “only serves extremists who want to spread calls for hatred.”

In the UAE, the government remained silent. But on Monday, the Abu Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders, chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, condemned the murder of the French teacher and the stabbing of two Muslim women in Paris. The council said it’s setting up an international legal committee to look into filing a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo.

The region split about three years ago when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut all ties with Qatar over its links with Iran. As Qatar drew closer to Turkey, which helped it weather the initial shock of the embargo, the rivalry spilled out beyond the Persian Gulf. The countries now find themselves on either side of a proxy war in Libya and it’s contributed to deepening tensions in the horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has clashed with Greece, the European Union -- and France -- over its energy ambitions.

Teacher Beheaded

Erdogan asked Turks to shun U.S.-made goods such as iPhones in 2018 when the two NATO allies were in a diplomatic spat over the fate of an American pastor, who had been held in Turkey over terrorism and espionage charges.

But the call came to little, proving too short-lived to cause a significant change in Turkish consumer behavior as the spat was resolved after Ankara convicted the pastor, Andrew Brunson, and then let him go on served time.

The latest spat was triggered by Macron’s unveiling earlier this month of proposals to fight extremism that stress the secular values of the French Republic. He described Islam as being a religion “in crisis, including in countries where it is a majority religion,” while emphasizing the need not to stigmatize Muslims.

Days later, 47-year-old Samuel Paty was beheaded near the Paris school where he worked after showing cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo to students during a civics class.

The cartoons were published for the first time by a Danish newspaper in 2005, sparking protests in Muslim countries around the globe and a boycott of Danish goods. Exports to Denmark’s main market in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, fell by 40%, while those to Iran, then its third largest market, fell by 47%.

“These boycotts can ripple across the region to a certain degree but there is a real difference between the boycott of Denmark years ago and France,” said David B. Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London who studies the Gulf. “You can get rid of few bottles of Chardonnay in the UAE and Qatar, but do these countries want to jeopardize strategic alliances with France, an important regional ally?”

Pandemic Concerns

If only Turkey boycotted French goods, the pain inflicted on its NATO ally would be minimal. Turkey was France’s 16th largest trade partner last year. Morocco is the only other majority Muslim country among France’s top 20 trade partners. France’s combined exports to the two countries is still less than it sells to Ireland, a country whose economy is half that of Turkey’s.

French authorities didn’t call for a reciprocal boycott of Turkish products in France, nor at the European level. France’s Medef business lobby on Monday urged French companies to stay out of the dispute. “Don’t answer stupidity with stupidity,” its leader, Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, said in an interview with RMC radio.

Ultimately, said Gerges of the LSE, while the narrative will resonate among certain sections of society, the wider public in France and the Muslim world have bigger issues to worry about right now.

“It’s surviving the pandemic, poverty and economic hardship - and the overwhelming majority are more concerned with that,” he said.

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