The Australian celebrates France’s national day today with a remarkable piece by Daniel Pipes originally published in the New York Sun (see here) criticising Britain and praising France for its superior dedication to the fight against terrorism – or against “radical Islam” – which he see as the same thing.

Pipes, son of famous Sovietologist Richard Pipes, is the man who has popularised the offensive term “Islamism” to refer to those who espouse al-Qaeda’s worldview. Anyone who described terrorists using Christianity as a cover for their acts as “Christianists” would of course be howled down, but these days Muslims are fair game, and Pipes is a favourite of the neoconservatives – although some will be unhappy at his acknowledgement that the war in Iraq is separate from the war on terrorism.

There are certainly many things Britain could learn from France (food being the obvious example), but Pipes’s examples are not the best place to start. His praise of France focuses on two points. First, France “accords terrorist suspects fewer rights than any other Western state” (yes, this is supposed to be a compliment). But France also has no tradition of framing innocent terror suspects, as repeatedly happened in Britain in relation to IRA attacks. Comparing different judicial systems is a hazardous business; there may be safeguards in the French system that are not obvious to those educated in a different tradition.

The second point is France’s approach to Islamic culture, where Pipes says “myriad French-British differences… can be summarised by the example of what Muslim girls may wear to state-funded schools.” Britain allows the most restrictive forms of Islamic dress, whereas France has banned even the simple headscarf. (This is not quite true: the French government also provides some funding for religious schools, where Islamic dress is permitted.)

But this is a dangerous piece of context-dropping. France has a long tradition of strict secularism in its public institutions, which makes the ban on head scarves something more than a question of civil liberties – without that context it would be a gratuitous piece of religious prejudice.

Peter Fray

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