Religious and political leaders in much of the Muslim world have slammed what they see as insults to Islam in a row about depictions of the prophet Mohammed in France.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the influential al-Azhar religious institution on Wednesday condemned the satirical cartoons.
“Abusing prophets and messengers is contempt for noble religious values,” al-Sissi told a ceremony to celebrate the birthday of the prophet.
“If people have the right to express what is in their minds, I think that should stop when it comes to hurting the feelings of more than 1.5 billion Muslims,” he said, adding: “Stop hurting us.”
An outcry against France has escalated in the Middle East in recent days over the cartoons, which originally appeared in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The right to publish the cartoons was recently defended by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The renewed international row over the cartoons, sparked by the beheading earlier this month by a suspected Islamist of a French teacher who showed them to his class in a lesson about freedom of expression, has led to calls for a boycott of French products.
During a national ceremony last week in honour of the slain teacher, one French regional council projected onto its buildings several Charlie Hebdo cartoons, with one depicting the prophet Mohammed clutching his head in despair at the acts of extremists in his name.
Egypt’s al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s influential seat of learning, called on the international community to criminalize anti-Muslim actions.
“We call on the international community to endorse global legislation criminalizing anti-Muslim actions and discrimination against them,” Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of the Cairo-based al-Azhar, said at the ceremony.
Al-Tayyeb also called on Muslims in Western countries to positively integrate into these societies, not to be provoked by hateful racism and not to be polarized by political Islam groups.
“The Islamic world and its religious institutions, topped by al-Azhar, were quick in condemning the murder of the French teacher. It is a regrettable and painful incident,” he said said.
He also called on Muslims to stick to peaceful and legal ways in facing hate speech.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday urged Muslim leaders to unite against Islamophobia in Europe.
“We … must take the initiative to call for an end to this cycle of hate and violence,” Khan said in a letter he wrote to more than 50 monarchs and democratic rulers of Islamic countries.
Khan said “the rising tides of Islamophobia” in the West especially in Europe and ridicule of prophet Mohammed bred extremism among Muslim youths that in turn attracted tougher actions by states.
“As a result a dangerous cycle of actions and reactions are set in motion,” Khan said.
On Wednesday, clerics and Islamic political groups in Pakistan joined trade unions in calling for the boycott of French products.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam political party that won several seats in Pakistan’s parliament, urged traders and importers to cancel import orders from France.
Rehman said protest rallies would be held across the country.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani called for Islamic values to be respected. “Although not intended, such statements [as Macron’s defence of the publication of the cartoons] only lead to more violence and bloodshed,” Rowhani said on Wednesday.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the head of the French embassy in Tehran on Tuesday over the row.
Countries like France, which hold values such as freedom, brotherhood, democracy and civilization, should not allow insults of other cultures, he said.
One must instead ensure worldwide respect for what is sacred to 1.9 billion people, the president said on his website.
There are an estimated 1.8 billion to 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide, with about 1.5 billion of them following the Sunni path of Islam.