Although the horrific decapitation of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty took place on October 16 after he had shown cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, the hashtag calling for the boycott of French products first emerged as early as October 2, analysis has since found.
The first time the viral hashtag appeared on Twitter came under a response tweet after the Turkish state broadcaster TRT’s Arabic channel tweeted a photo of French President Emmanuel Macron in which his photo was accompanied by a quote attributed to him saying: “Islam is a religion going through a crisis in the world.”
“French President Emmanuel Macron describes Islam as ‘a religion that is in crisis in the world.’ What do you think of his recent statement?” TRT Arabi tweeted.
On October 2, Macron said his government would unveil a proposed law to fight “Islamist separatism“ later in the year to combat what he saw as those favoring religious laws over France’s republican and secular values.
“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country,” Macron said.
The French debate on Islam deepened two weeks later on October 16, when Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Russian man with Chechen origins, decapitated 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty outside his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris.
A week later on October 23, cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed were projected onto government buildings in France.
The viral hashtags of #BoycottFrenchProducts, #Islam, and #NeverTheProphet in Arabic.
Amplified by pro-Muslim Brotherhood networks
The hashtags have also been amplified by pro-Muslim Brotherhood media networks such as Turkey’s TRT and Qatar’s Al Jazeera in recent days.
Al Jazeera tweeted a thread of photos on Monday using the hashtags #NeverTheProphet and #BoycottFrenchProducts to illustrate several protests across the Arab and Islamic worlds.
“#Except_the_Messenger_of_God and the #BoycottFrenchProducts.. Calls for boycott were accompanied by protests in a number of Arab and Islamic countries against Macron’s insults of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace,” Al Jazeera tweeted.
According to Track My Hashtag, a hashtag analysis site, on October 26 – five days following Macron’s national tribute speech of Paty – the most retweeted tweet under the #BoycottFrenchProducts hashtag was by Hakem al-Mutairi, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood Kuwaiti hate preacher. Al-Mutairi is currently under investigation by Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior following leaked recordings of his past conversations with the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi discussing the overthrow other Arab leaders.
Calls for boycotts after insults were made at Islam’s Prophet Mohammed have taken place in the past. In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten caused worldwide controversy when it published cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed and in 2010, a “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” campaign was created following the censorship of Comedy Central’s South Park episode "201" featuring a character in a bear costume, who various other characters stated was Islam’s prophet.
Compared to those past protests and campaigns, many in the Arab media seem to focus less this time around given the geopolitical issues that are pitting France on the one side, while Qatar and Turkey on the other on files such as the Libyan conflict and the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Today, with some French media insulting the Prophet, and with the calls made by Qatar and Turkey to boycott France, this appears to be an export of speech only, highlighting the question that Doha and Ankara evaded from ... Why has Qatar not yet taken the initiative to boycott France and abandon those investments that feed the French economy and supports the current government ?” wrote Saudi Arabian writer Muhammad al-Saad in the Okaz newspaper.
Al-Saad pointed to past reports of Qatar’s investment in France, including Doha’s purchase of 24 Dassault Rafale fighter jets and French government announcements that Qatar has invested, directly and indirectly, about $15 billion in France over the past five years, excluding the private investments made by the Emir of Qatar and his family.
Slow to protest
In the past, protest campaigns have galvanized a more cohesive stance from the Arab and Islamic world. Following the Jyllands-Posten Prophet Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark in 2005, 11 ambassadors from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Libya, Morocco, and the Head of the Palestinian General Delegation asked for a meeting with the Danish prime minister to discuss the cartoons.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said it condemns any cartoons offending the Prophet Mohammed and rejects any attempts to link Islam with terrorism. The Secretary-General of the Mecca-based Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa said Muslims do not stand against constitutional freedoms of individuals, only attempts to distort those freedoms and using them to spread hatred.
“We are not against legitimate freedoms, but we are against employing those freedoms for material gain, undermining their value. We are also against the consequential spread of hatred and racism,” he said.
While the #BoycottFrenchProducts hashtag showed up early on October 3, it began to trend worldwide on October 21 following Macron’s speech paying tribute to Paty. According to the hashtag analysis website Track My Hashtag, 560,000 tweets were posted under the #BoycottFrenchProducts between October 2 and October 27.
The French government has responded to the protests and calls for boycott by saying that the hashtags have distorted France’s true position.
“These calls distort the positions France has upheld in favor of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the rejection of any incitement to hatred. They also distort and exploit for political purposes the statements the President made in Les Mureaux on 2 October and during the national tribute to Samuel Paty, aimed at fighting radical Islamism and doing so with the Muslims of France, who are an integral part of France’s society, history and Republic,” France’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The calls for boycotting are therefore completely groundless and must stop immediately, along with any attacks directed against our country, which are exploited by a radical minority,” the statement added.