While the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, marched in a Paris rally to support the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, anger was rising at home among the country’s majority Muslim population over cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed.
Over the weekend, anger exploded on the streets when about 1,000 young men turned on the institutions of the Catholic community, burning 45 churches. Ten people were reported killed in the melee.
Security forces in the capital, Niamey, used tear gas on Sunday against a banned demonstration. Violence was also reported in Zinder, the country’s second largest city, as churches burned and Christian homes and a French cultural center were looted by mobs.
“The French flag was burned,” said Mr Adily Toro, a national police spokesman, adding that 189 people, including two minors, were arrested by police.
Demonstrators also pillaged and burned numerous premises, including five hotels and 36 bars.
The French news agency, AFP, reported that a Muslim elder, Yaou Sonna, urged people to stop attacking Christians. “Don’t forget that Islam is against violence,” he said on state television.
“I urge men and women, boys and girls, to calm down.”
The cartoons, defended as an exercise in freedom of speech, also set off riots in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Gaza.
French President Francois Hollande refused to reconsider his support of the magazine, saying people did not understand France’s commitment to freedom of speech, even in the case of the controversial cartoons of Mohamed.
However a growing movement has appeared of journalists and others refusing to join the “I am Charlie Hebdo” supporters. One of them was New York Times opinion page writer David Brooks.
“Let’s face it,” Brooks wrote in a recent column. “If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.”
Brooks criticized the crowds that jumped to the defense of the cartoonists for their controversial attacks on the Muslim prophet. A lot of them would be a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home, he said.
He continued: “The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the National Rifle Association, Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.
“So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.