The No-Go Zone Myth Comes To America

Origins Of A Right-Wing Fallacy

Muslim enclavesThe rhetoric around the debunked right wing media meme about the existence of “no-go zones” throughout France, the United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe, ratcheted up last week. Driven by politics, viewers, listeners, and page views,  even the multiple mea culpas from Fox News just last weekend haven't stopped the myth.

By the conservative telling, in these supposed “Muslim only” enclaves the population has “take[n] over parts of the country, entire portions, towns,” (allegedly more than 700 in France alone!), and outside police are forbidden as extremism and Sharia Law flourish. And now, they present an active threat to the United States and our American values.

“If people don't want to come here to integrate and assimilate, what they're really trying to do is set up their own culture, their own communities,” Louisiana Governor and potential 2016 GOP presidential contender Bobby Jindal said last week, continuing, “What they're really trying to do is overturn our culture. We need to recognize that threat.” When criticized for the bogus claim, he pointed to the work of a foreign policy think tank led by Fox News contributor John Bolton.

On his radio show, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins warned that America has already succumbed to the spread of “no-go zones,” blaming a failure to assimilate into American culture. “There are some areas in this country that, in effect, that has occurred. Dearborn, Michigan, is one of the places. There are some places in Minneapolis,” he said. The Muslim-bashing continued on conservative outlets like Breitbart News and WND, which continued to post stories with inflammatory headlines like, “ISLAM EXPERTS: NO-GO ZONES LOOMING FOR AMERICA; Back Jindal's view non-assimilation is trouble because Muslims 'supremacist at core,'” and “EUROPEAN 'NO-GO' ZONES REMAIN UNASSIMILATED HOTBEDS OF RADICAL ISLAM.”

While the narrative is long on fear mongering, it is short on actually examining the very real societal barriers, stigma, and racism that Muslim immigrants to Europe and their second and third generation children face as they actually try to assimilate. These barriers are mostly erected by the same society and government that accuses them of not wanting to assimilate, instead fueling Islamophobia and isolation.

It's compounded in France by decades of broken promises for investment, job training programs, improved schools, rhetoric of stemming the growing tide of racism, even calls for a Marshall Plan for the working-class suburbs that surround Paris. Instead, the problem has been left to fester, further isolating the Muslim community, as the far-right European anti-Muslim movement continues to grow.  

I had the opportunity to work for a number of years on a project through the French American Foundation and the American Embassy in France aimed at helping and encouraging young minority candidates, many of whom were especially inspired by President Obama's election. A majority of them were Muslim and from the banlieue. Contrary to conservative propaganda, they saw themselves as French first, period. They were passionate about their county, incredibly smart, insightful and committed to serving France by being a part of the political system, and each talked about having to work overtime to illustrate their assimilation in the face of increasing racial tensions in France.

Conditions vary among the areas termed “sensitive urban zones”, “zones of banishment,” or banlieues; but in general these working class areas historically have faced high unemployment, bad housing, poor schools, and overall neglect. For decades African and Arab immigrants, mostly Muslim and often from countries that France colonized in the 19th and 20th centuries, have been systematically segregated into the banlieues. Reportedly one third of the residents live below the poverty line, 39 percent of the population is under age 25; and unemployment is also markedly higher among those young people at 40 percent. Physically isolated by limited access to public transportation, racial profiling and police harassment are also top issues of concern in those communities. 

Residents of the banlieues also face intense stigma and discrimination; a banlieue address alone can guarantee a job application is disregarded. According to a study by a Sorbonne professor, “two French job applicants with identical credentials, the one whose name sounded Moroccan was six times less likely to get an interview than the one whose name sounded Franco-French.”

A sequence of events in 2005 unleashed the anger and frustration that had been brewing for years, resulting in weeks of riots and clashes between the police and young people. Two young men who were part of a group stopped by the police for an ID check were accidentally electrocuted after they fled and hid in an electrical power substation. In the aftermath, changes in police tactics in the banlieue that had begun in 2002 under the watch of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, then serving as interior minister, escalated dramatically. A 2005 report from the Brookings Institute noted that at this point, community-policing style policies were replaced with a focus on crime fighting. Additionally community programs that had been viewed as effective in helping banlieue youth were dramatically cut back.

Not surprisingly, a decrease in trust between the police and the community resulted from these changes, as police were seen as only showing up in the aftermath of a crime or violence, with fewer police on the street to deter violence in the banlieue. While the right-wing media narrative has falsely accused residents of the banlieue of kicking the police out, a number of reports note that from the perspective of the residents themselves, it was the police who abandoned the communities that needed them the most.

In the aftermath of a 2007 riot (also sparked by an interaction between police and young banlieue men) in the suburb of Bondy, French blogger Mohamed Hamidi told The New York Times, “Sarkozy promised to send more police to the suburbs, but in so many places there are fewer police than there were two years ago... He didn't keep his word. Who suffers from all the violence and the burning cars? The people who live in these neighborhoods.”

Over time, the cultural stigma of the banlieue has been reinforced by media coverage that many residents feel disproportionately depicts violence over examples of success and positive determination. 

None of this is in any way to suggest (this is for you my conservative friends) that isolation, discrimination, alienation, lack of opportunity, poor living conditions, or repeated messages that one can never be part of mainstream culture are an excuse for extremist radicalization and/or violence. There is no excuse. But there is plenty of research illustrating a frighteningly similar set of factors that contribute to the cycle in which some young people become perfect recruits, radicalizing around an ideology that provides a sense of identity and purpose, turning against the culture that insists they can never belong. 

Rather than feeding isolation and impeding assimilation with the perpetuation of false memes and racist diatribes, media who are concerned with preventing radicalization should focus on ways to reduce these barriers.

More eloquently stated by a 21-year-old resident of the French suburb Viry-Chatillon, “It's hard to dream when everyone says the place you come from only spawns 'jihadists, terrorists and delinquents' ... You end up feeling completely isolated.”