FOX News made its own headlines this week when terrorism expert Steve Emerson told host Jeanine Pirro that the U.K. city of Birmingham was a Muslim “no-go zone.” For insulting the “beautiful city of Birmingham,” Emerson apologized and retracted this characterization utterly, but the story about no-go zones where police are not allowed and Sharia law dominates is still out there and it is not going away. The fact is that what are being called no-go zones actually do exist, but they are not the Muslim strongholds that FOX News and others would have you think they are.
In Paris, there exist over 700 zones known as zones urbaines sensibles, which translates to “sensitive urban zones” and are often abbreviated to ZUS. These zones are what Emerson and others are referring to when they talk about no-go zones. Usually the ZUS get characterized as tiny caliphates set up for Muslims living in Western cities and can be both completely lawless and governed by Sharia law at the same time. Emerson described them as places “where Shariah courts were set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where the police don’t go in, and where it’s basically a separate country almost, a country within a country.” This is what he said the entire city of Birmingham was like, so it is no wonder that David Cameron reportedly choked on his porridge when he heard it.
The fact of the matter is that these zones are not at all like what Emerson describes. In fact, they are areas of urban renewal, set aside by the French government (not a Muslim police force) for clean up and extra monitoring from police to drive down crime levels. They are not specifically Muslim, nor are they usually extremely violent. According to conservative news source Breitbart, the level of violence in any of these areas varies considerably, and “some of them have been rehabilitated, some are poor but non-violent, and some are poor and occasionally violent,” but none of them come up to level of rampant carnage that Emerson and others on FOX News have described. In fact, they look a lot like the photo above and this photo here, both of which are of Laon, one of the French towns which have ZUS classifications.
So why does this myth persist? Some have conjectured that the language barrier between English speakers and the French zones urbaines sensibles may be responsible, but this seems like a copout. The fact of the matter is that no one except the right wing in America and in other places is talking about no-go zones. FOX News is the biggest culprit in this story and their influence on it can be felt throughout. But it is hardly the only one to spread this deliberate misinformation.
Figuring out where the term started may be a clue as to why it keeps going. United States historian Daniel Pipes wrote an article in 2006 that first described the no-go zones in those now familiar terms. In describing them he observed that they seemed to indicate that France had lost control over parts of its territory. Now, however, he has retracted that characterisation and has said that no such zone exists anywhere in Europe. In fact, after having visited some of the ZUS, he said they were “mild” and “dull” and noted that areas like the Bronx and Detroit in America were worse.
Despite the fact that the apparent originator of the no-go zone myth totally denies it, Emerson and others have continued with the idea and spread it even further. After Emerson’s Birmingham insult, FOX News journalist Nolan Peterson reiterated the idea of no-go zones and told Elisabeth Hasselbeck that only a complete shake up of French society could get rid of them. He even said that they felt like Afghanistan and Iraq, a direct contradiction of Pipes’ dull and mild. With the huge gap between these two descriptions, it is hard to put it down merely to differences in personal experience. The fact that Peterson’s extreme depiction of the ZUS is so in-line with the agenda of the right wing, which FOX News has had a hand in furthering, makes this contradiction highly suspicious.
But anyone who has not visited the ZUS would have a hard time refuting such claims. Nevertheless, the reactions of people who live in France and other parts of Europe speak volumes as to how laughable Peterson’s and others’ claims about the ZUS are. Twitter users posted using the hashtag “Fox News Facts” in order to ridicule the network and its high-anxiety claims about the ZUS. A picture of the Queen wearing a scarf on a rainy day was captioned with “the Queen is now forced to wear a hijab” and an image of a jam jar covered with a piece of cloth was labeled with a similar caption, this time “Jam jars across Britain have to wear the hijab in order to be halal.” David Cameron’s own porridge spitting incident is another indicator, as is Bloomberg Businessweek’s report that a non-practicing Muslim in Paris in a ZUS said, “That’s pretty funny.” Overall the conclusion is that Peterson’s, Emerson’s and FOX News’ worrying over “no-go zones” is laughable.
To their credit, FOX News and other sources like Businessweek and Breitbart have at least tried to report more of the facts since Emerson’s horrible insult to an entire city. In one article titled “World View: Concern Rising Over Muslim ‘No-Go Zones’ As Terror Breeding Grounds,” Breitbart did set the record straight as to what exactly the no-go zones were. Yet despite referencing and explaining the ZUS, the article still maintained they were predominantly Muslim, which is an error at best. The entire point of the article, however, was not to correct the fear-mongering that no-go zones are typically used to spread. Instead, it sowed the fear that they were “breeding grounds for would-be jihadists planning to commit terrorist acts.” This is hardly a call to common sense, nor is it a calm, measured report on the facts regarding the ZUS.
Whether the reason is misinformation, a language barrier or a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the ZUS by FOX News and others, the fact of the matter is that these supposed “no-go zones” are not what you think. They are not pockets of lawlessness dominated by Muslims intent on making the whole word part of Sharia law. They are not the entire city of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Dearborn, Michigan (another maligned city) and they are not basically war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq in a European setting. What the story is is untrue and extremely scary, making it little more than a ploy used by those who would have people be scared. Most people who have visited the ZUs and the people who actually live there think this is hilarious, so ridiculous as to cause a porridge spit take and insulting. That should tell people more than anything else about whether they should believe FOX News in this matter.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury
Atlas of Sensitive Urban Zones
Top image by Marc ROUSELL – Flickr License
Inside image by Seb Perez-Duarte – Flickr License