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‘No-Go Zones’: The Myth That Just Won’t Quit

A regular critic of Islam, Fox News pundit and self-styled “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson, apologized under pressure in January for his assertion, following the jihadist massacre at France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine, that certain parts of Europe are “no-go zones” where “non-Muslims just simply don’t go.” 

Emerson, who told CBS viewers in 1995 not to believe Islamic groups’ denials of responsibility for the Oklahoma City bombing before it was known that it was the work of white antigovernment extremists, made the comment during a Jan. 10 appearance on Fox’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine.” Facing an outcry, he admitted his error and offered a fulsome apology, but that did not stop Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron from calling him a “complete idiot.”

Nor did it prevent other Fox pundits, hate group leaders and politicians from repeating the “no-go zone” claim. Among them were Frank Gaffney of the Islamophobic Center for Security Policy; Robert Spencer of the anti-Muslim hate group Stop the Islamization of America (who calls the zones “Sharia enclaves”); Tony Perkins of the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council (whose claim that Minneapolis included such a zone was met with an invitation from U.S. Rep Keith Ellison, a Muslim whose district includes Minneapolis, to visit the city); and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (whose warning about British no-go zones was characterized by London mayor Boris Johnson as “complete nonsense”).

Ultimately, Fox News apologized repeatedly for variations on the no-go zone myth promulgated on its network. Following up, The Atlantic and Talking Points Memo (TPM) each traced the etiology of the myth. 

According to TPM, it first surfaced in the conservative Washington Times around 2002, and was amplified in 2006 by anti-Islamist pundit Daniel Pipes, who claimed that France’s “Zones Urbaines Sensibles” (for Sensitive Urban Zones, a government designation for over 700 areas with high poverty and unemployment) were Muslim-controlled “no-go zones.” Pipes doubled down in 2008, saying the zones exist in part “because Muslims wish to live in their own areas according to their own culture and their own Shariah laws.” But he backtracked five years later, writing that he “regret[ted]” calling the neighborhoods “no-go zones” because “[i]n
normal times, they are unthreatening, routine places.” 

As David Graham of The Atlantic observed, “Like many political myths, there’s a partial basis in fact” for the claim. Some European countries, including the United Kingdom, do allow Sharia courts where the faithful can resolve civil and family (but not criminal) issues. Analogous Jewish courts also exist in England and indeed in the United States, where, according to the Pew Research Center, there are also Christian tribunals willing to mediate certain disputes. However, in none of these places are religious courts empowered to supplant civil court. 

Graham also noted that “vigilante Sharia squads” — small groups of Muslim men who attempt to implement Sharia laws governing female modesty and other matters by harassing transgressors — have formed in some European countries but are condemned by most Muslims. It’s worth noting that in parts of New York City dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, neighborhood “modesty committees” similarly have been known to harass women perceived as dressing provocatively in violation of religious law. They, too, are condemned and deplored by most Jews.

The bottom line — as Fox News was forced to admit in four separate apologies — is that while all pluralistic societies include areas that are more or less comfortable for certain individuals depending on cultural expectations, and all cities have high-crime areas (though these two are not necessarily overlapping), there are not now, nor have there been in living memory, actual Muslim-controlled “no-go zones” anywhere in Europe or the U.S.