Weak Brits, Tough French
By Daniel Pipes
FrontPageMagazine.com | July 12, 2005
Thanks to the war in Iraq, much of the world sees the British government as resolute and tough, the French one as appeasing and weak. But in another war, the one against terrorism and radical Islam, the reverse is true: France is the most stalwart nation in the West, even more so than the United States, while Great Britain is the very most hapless. Consider:
Counterterrorism. U.K.-based terrorists have carried out operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Russia, Spain, and the United States. Many governments â€“ Jordanian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Spanish, French, and American â€“ have protested Londonâ€™s refusal to shut down its Islamist terrorist infrastructure or extradite wanted operatives. In frustration, Egyptian president Husni Mubarak publicly denounced Britain for â€œprotecting killers.â€ One American security group has called for Britain to be listed as a terrorism-sponsoring state.
Counterterrorism specialists disdain the British. Roger Cressey calls London â€œeasily the most important jihadist hub in Western Europe.â€ Steven Simon dismisses the British capital as â€œthe Star Wars bar sceneâ€ of Islamic radicals. More brutally, an intelligence official said of last weekâ€™s attacks: â€œThe terrorists have come home. It is payback time for â€¦ an irresponsible policy.â€
While London hosts terrorists, Paris hosts a top-secret counterterrorism center, code-named Alliance Base, whose existence was just revealed by the Washington Post, where six major Western governments since 2002 share intelligence and run counterterrorism operations. (The latter makes it unique.)
More broadly, President Jacques Chirac instructed French intelligence agencies just days after 9/11 to share terrorism data with their U.S. counterparts â€œas if they were your own service.â€ This cooperation is working: former acting CIA director John E. McLaughlin calls this bilateral intelligence tie â€œone of the best in the world.â€ The British may have a â€œspecial relationshipâ€ with Washington in Iraq, but the French have one in the war on terror.
France accords terrorist suspects fewer rights than any other Western state, permitting interrogation without a lawyer, lengthy pre-trial incarcerations, and evidence acquired under dubious circumstances. Were he a terrorism suspect, says Evan Kohlmann, author of Al-Qaidaâ€™s Jihad in Europe, he â€œwould least like to be held underâ€ the French system.
Radical Islam. The myriad French-British differences in this arena can be summarized by the example of what Muslim girls may wear to state-funded schools.
Denbigh High School in Luton, 30 miles northwest from London, has a student population about 80 percent Muslim. It years ago accommodated the sartorial needs of their faith and heritage, including a female student uniform made up of the Pakistani shalwar kameez trousers, a jerkin top, and hijab head covering. But when Shabina Begum, a teenager of Bangladeshi origins, insisted in 2004 on wearing a jilbab, which covers the entire body except for the face and hands, Denbigh administrators said no.
Their dispute ended up in litigation and the Court of Appeal ultimately decided in Begumâ€™s favor. As a result, by law U.K. schools must now accept the jilbab. Not only that, but Cherie Booth, wife of British prime minister Tony Blair, was Begumâ€™s lawyer at the appellate level. Booth called the courtâ€™s judgment â€œa victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry.â€
In contrast, also in 2004, the French government outlawed the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, from public educational institutions, disregarding ferocious opposition both within France and among Islamists worldwide. In Tehran, protestors shouted â€œDeath to France!â€ and â€œDeath to Chirac the Zionist!â€ The Palestinian Authority mufti, Ikrima Saâ€™id Sabri, declared that â€œFrench laws banning the hijab constitute a war against Islam as a religion.â€ The Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called them a human rights infringement. When the â€œIslamic Army in Iraqâ€ kidnapped two French journalists, it threatened their execution unless the hijab ban was revoked. Nonetheless, Paris stood firm.
What lies behind these contrary responses? The British have seemingly lost interest in their heritage while the French hold on to theirs; even as the British ban fox hunting, the French ban hijabs. The former embraced multiculturalism, the latter retain a pride in their historic culture. This contrast in matters of identity makes Great Britain the Western country most vulnerable to the ravages of radical Islam whereas France, for all its political failings, has retained a sense of self that may yet see it through.
Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures (Transaction Publishers).