By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London
Over the past month, the geography of Europe’s Muslim population has been greatly exciting the pundits invited to talk on the conservative Fox News channel. Furore was sparked when ‘terrorism expert’ Steven Emerson, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, told host ‘Judge Jeanine’ about the ‘hundreds’ of ‘no-go zones’ across Europe, in which non-Muslims are supposedly not welcome.
Emerson stated, “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go… In parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire.”
UKIP’s Nigel Farage even turned up to tell Sean Hannity about the ‘blind eye’ that has supposedly been turned towards the ‘Muslim ghettos’ where ‘the police and all the normal agents of the law have withdrawn’ and where ‘Sharia law has come in’.
These segments were widely mocked across social media and the station eventually issued an apology, stating that there was “no credible information to support the assertion”.
Despite the apology and the ridicule, this idea of ‘no-go zones’ has been seized by the far-right. Nationalist group Britain First has, according to The Independent, restarted its ‘Christian patrols’ in parts of east London, with the stated aim to make “our streets safe for our people”.
Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana and a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, has also jumped upon the ‘no-go zones’ theme, telling a neocon think tank that, in the West, there are areas in which “non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of Sharia law as they can.”
An article by Deborah Phillips in January’s edition of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers is critical of these kinds of popular and political representations of Muslim neighbourhoods, which typically portray Muslim communities as made up of “dubious citizens and unassimilable others”.
The paper seeks to “complicate understandings of British Muslim citizenship” by underscoring the “salience of the neighbourhood as a performative space implicated in citizenship formation and the sedimentation of feelings of belonging.” Philips’ work involved conducting interviews and focus groups with Muslims and newly arrived economic migrants from Eastern Europe in the UK city of Bradford.
Like the right-wing pundits, freedom of movement was foremost among the Muslim participants’ concerns; the freedom to travel into ‘white areas’ was widely perceived to be constrained, with many women stating that they feel uncomfortable about moving outside community spaces because of fear of hostility and violence. Female participants described the commercialised city centre as ‘not for the likes of us’, and ‘sort of out of bounds’.
The apparent ease with which their new Eastern European neighbours traversed the city, as seemingly ‘unmarked’ White Christian bodies, was identified as a source of tension. Muslim participants suggested that this stood in contrast to their own lack of freedom to “cross the boundaries of public space without surveillance and ‘all that hassle’… or to enter white residential spaces without fear of harassment.”
One idea mooted by Phillips is that the desire to appropriate city space may be, at least in part, motivated by feelings of restriction. The sense of empowerment gained when moving through a ‘Muslim neighbourhood’ goes a little way towards compensating for immobilities elsewhere.
These debates, involving issues of citizenship, identity and appropriation of space, are inherently geographical and have so far been largely dominated by actors seeking to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment. Phillips’ paper is a timely contribution that works to inject some desperately needed nuance into these debates that show few signs of dissipating.
Deborah Phillips, 2015, Claiming spaces: British Muslim negotiations of urban citizenship in an era of new migration, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(1) 62-74.