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Financial Times

European Muslim organisations say French leader’s approach is fuelling tensions and ‘encouraging racists, extremists’.

More than 20 European Muslim organisations have called on French President Emmanuel Macron to end his “divisive rhetoric”, as the fallout between France and the Muslim world continues.

In an open letter published on Saturday, the organisations from several countries including the Netherlands, Finland and Italy said the French leader has failed to provide “strong moral leadership” following the killing of a teacher and three worshippers at a church last month.

“Maligning Islam and your own Muslim citizens, closing mainstream mosques, Muslim and humanitarian rights organisations, and using this as an opportunity to stir up further hatred, has given further encouragement to racists and violent extremists,” the signatories said, urging Macron to rethink what they called his “unilateral assault on Muslims, Islam and Prophet Muhammad”.

“The moral high ground that we invite you to, is to reject hatred, marginalisation and divisive rhetoric, and use your leadership to bring people together.”

Macron in recent weeks drew widespread criticism in much of the Muslim world after defending the right to caricature Prophet Muhammad after the Charlie Hebdo newspaper republished cartoons featuring the prophet in September. The Prophet Muhammad is deeply revered by Muslims and any kind of visual depiction is forbidden in Islam.

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The French president reiterated his stance about the cartoons after Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed the caricatures to his pupils in class during a discussion on free speech, was beheaded by an attacker on October 16.

Macron has also faced a backlash from Muslim activists after claiming in a speech a month ago that Islam was “in crisis globally” and announced his plan “to reform Islam” in order to make it more compatible with his country’s republican values.

While Muslims in France have condemned the killing of the teacher, they have also expressed fears of collective punishment amid a government crackdown targeting Islamic organizations and attacks by vigilante groups on mosques.

In their letter, the signatories denounced the French government’s crackdown, including the closure of mosques and charities authorities had accused of inciting hatred, among other things.

“This opportunistic behavior undermines the principles of the rule of law by closing down associations based on political motivations and without sound legal procedures,” they said.

In recent days, tens of thousands of people in several Muslim-majority countries have staged anti-France protests, with many officials and demonstrators issuing calls for a boycott of French-made products.

Macron, in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera that was aired on Saturday, said his words were distorted, stressing that political leaders had intentionally led people to believe the caricatures were a creation of the French state.

“The caricatures are not governmental projects, but emerged from free and independent newspapers that are not affiliated with the government,” he said.

“I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights,” Macron said.

“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he added.

He also said the “radical Islam” he was trying to fight was a threat to all people, especially Muslims.

“Today in the world there are people who distort Islam and in the name of this religion that they claim to defend, they kill, they slaughter … today there is violence practiced by some extremist movements and individuals in the name of Islam,” Macron said. “Of course this is a problem for Islam because Muslims are the first victims,” he added. “More than 80 percent of the victims of terrorism are Muslims and this is a problem for all of us.”