The Myth of the No-Go Zone

In the last decade, right-wing politicians and media outlets have proliferated the idea of 'no-go zones' as a way to foment hatred against immigrants – only proving how much of their ideology consists of fantasy.

Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds, England.

What is a no-go zone? On the surface, a no-go zone is an area which it’s unsafe for you to enter. This could be because of the way you look, your gender, your religion, your sexuality, or a combination of factors. Lately they have been discussed in terms relating to Muslim communities. The idea has been used as a talking point by public figures who would like Islam to be viewed as a sinister invading force – but there are questions from some people as to whether these areas actually exist.

The most recent example of this concept was seen in the Daily Mail, which claimed that entire towns such as Didsbury are unsafe for white people. A photograph accompanying the article showed the mosque in Didsbury, and claimed that there were signs for a ‘Sharia Department’ found within it. The article itself was based on a recently released book by Ed Hussain, a professor associated with Georgetown University, who experienced radicalisation when he was young. It should be noted that the Bridge Project within Georgetown University has debunked the idea of these zones.

The headlines faced a quick and severe backlash, with local people quick to point out that Didsbury is a largely white demographic area. The 2011 census showed that Didsbury West, where the Mosque and Islamic Centre is located, is 43.93 percent Christian, compared to just 5.07 percent Muslim. It’s clear from both the words of residents and census statistics themselves that in this particular area, the idea of a no-go zone doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The truth is that this idea of a no-go zone doesn’t hold up anywhere. The concept has been proven time and again to be a false construct, usually aimed at fomenting distrust toward a particular ethnic or religious grouping. It has become a popular Islamophobic narrative that links easily into fears of ‘Sharia Law’ operating as an underground justice system, counter to the laws of the UK itself.

While it is true that there are Sharia Councils that operate within the UK, they serve a religious function and are protected by articles within the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The councils carry out a similar purpose to a Jewish Beth Din or a Catholic Consistory Court in that they are able to carry out arbitration for community disputes and authorise divorces. The same ECHR articles that protect them also state that these councils in no way overrule the laws of the nation in which they’re held. For example, if a couple were legally married in the UK and obtained a divorce agreement through a Sharia Council, the marriage would still be recognised in UK law until it was processed by UK courts.

So how did these myths get started?

In the past, no-go areas of a sort have existed in conflict zones and in cities with a large organised crime element. From the Triads control of Kowloon in the 1950s to the British Army’s avoidance of ‘Free Derry’ in 1960s Northern Ireland, there are plenty of historical examples of locations where it has been impossible for one group or another to enter. The associations with Muslim communities, however, start to emerge in the early 2000s with the 2002 publication of David Ignatius’s article in the New York Times discussing areas of Paris that became ‘no-go zones at night.’

The term built from this point on, finding itself a home in the writing and opinions of figures such as Daniel Pipes and the blogger Fjordman, whose articles featured heavily in white nationalist Andres Breivik’s manifesto. Possibly the highest profile example of the concept’s use was in 2015, when a Fox News discussion segment between Sean Hannity and ‘terrorism expert’ Steven Emerson made claims that Muslim no-go zones existed throughout the US and Europe, and that Birmingham in its entirety was closed off to non-Muslims.

The claims were widely refuted by politicians including then-prime minister David Cameron, and a threat of legal action against Fox News was made by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. Both Fox News and Emerson publicly apologised for the comments and admitted they were false – but the damage had already been done. The claim was reiterated by a presidential candidate the day after the apology.

Since then, it’s a message that has featured in anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agendas, and refuses to go away. Research conducted as part of Hope Not Hate’s annual ‘state of hate’ report found that 37 percent of the UK population had some belief in the idea of Muslim no-go zones ruled by Sharia law. This statistic, sadly, is not surprising given that the narratives that drive these beliefs have also helped to build the current environment the UK has developed.

Through its pursuit of Hostile Environment policies such as the immigration health surcharge, the UK Home Office has helped to foster a distrust of immigrants and those seeking asylum within UK communities. Despite ‘economic’ migrants being a benefit to the UK, not least of all in the case of non-British born workers within the NHS, time and time again the public is sold a perception of immigrants as a negative. This perception doesn’t just come from the Conservative government – it also features heavily in the language used by the media to describe them.

Criminalising language such as ‘Illegal Immigrant’ that unfairly adds a criminal connotation to a person, rather than an action, is prevalent, and longstanding calls to replace the terminology have been ignored by large sections of the British press. A report by UNHCR found that press coverage of the ‘migrant crisis’ in the UK was highly negative and that of all European countries, it focused on ‘the discussion of refugees and migrants as a cultural threat or a threat to community cohesion’ at the highest rate.

This serves to aid a narrative that focuses on fear and distrust of the ‘other’, and it becomes easier for far-right extremist groups to tweak that narrative in a way that fits whichever grouping they wish to target. When one third of the public starts to believe a conspiracy theory, it moves beyond being a fringe idea that can be laughed at and forgotten; it becomes a threat.

When these themes gain traction they become a recruiting tool, emboldening white nationalist groups to spread their rhetoric in ever more public settings. After all, if a national media outlet feels comfortable enough to lead with the idea as a headline, that idea gains legitimacy. If these views are then allowed to spread unchallenged, they will reach the vulnerable young people in whom groups like The Base, National Action, and the EDL hope to inspire hate.

It is not enough for Muslim communities to challenge these perceptions alone. The responsibility falls on everyone to recognise the falsehood of these ideas and challenge them. That is how we end the damaging myths that continue to haunt our headlines.