Have you heard about the "no-go zones"? If not, just ask the uncle you dread seeing at Thanksgiving; by now he's already gotten a dozen chain e-mails about them. Despite having been widely debunked, this little nugget of misinformation is showing remarkable resilience. In and of itself that's nothing new; one poll earlier this month found that a majority of Republicans still think we found WMDs in Iraq. What's interesting about the no-go zones is how deeply the idea plays on certain fears and resentments that are rather common among a group of Americans to whom politicians are now starting to pay a great deal of attention, namely the Republican primary electorate.
To catch you up, a rumor recently began circulating that in many countries in Europe, Muslims have established areas where not only are non-Muslims afraid to go, but where police refuse to go and some version of Sharia law has replaced the actual laws of the country. As is usually the case with these kinds of delusions, some true facts are hidden within; for instance, manic Islamophobes have seized on the fact that the French government has designated certain areas as "zones urbaines sensibles," or "sensitive urban zones," as evidence that entire regions of that country are gone from French sovereignty. In fact, the ZUS's are merely neighborhoods with high crime and unemployment that have been targeted by the French government for economic development. But it sure sounds like the kind of surrender to foreigners we could expect from the French, doesn't it?
The truthiness of the no-go zones—at least to those with a certain cast of mind—keeps driving the rumor forward no matter how often it gets debunked. When Fox News "terrorism expert" Steve Emerson went on the network and said that "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," it made enough news in Britain that Prime Minister David Cameron got asked about it. He called Emerson "a complete idiot," and Emerson apologized, as did other Fox on-air personalities.
You might have thought that would take the air out of the idea, but instead it appears to be spreading. Bobby Jindal, who at this stage seems to be positioning himself as the candidate for voters who think Pastor Huckabee might not be quite Christian enough, went to England last week to lecture the British about no-go zones in their country that don't actually exist. As Byron York reported, many conservative voters in Iowa ate up Jindal's fantastical charges. "To them, Jindal was warning about the danger of enclaves of unassimilated Muslim populations in an age of Islamic radicalism, a problem they fear could be in store for the United States."
And that's where the idea is moving: away from debating about what is or isn't happening in Europe, to what might be coming to the United States. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an extremely influential figure among the religious right, recently warned that Dearborn, Michigan, and "parts of Minneapolis" are now ruled by Sharia law. In response, Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim members of Congress, who represents Minneapolis—sent Perkins a warm and patient letter inviting him to the city, where he could see that while there are many Muslim Americans who live there, all federal, state, and local laws remain in effect.
While you might think that any whipped-up fears having to do with Muslims are about terrorism, this is as much or even more about immigration. It's an exaggerated version of what so many find disturbing when they see significant numbers of immigrants in and around their communities: that the new arrivals will make them feel like aliens in their own home. People will be speaking a different language, eating different foods, participating in a different culture, and all of it will seem strange and unsettling.
In truth, that's a temporary situation. There aren't too many people who drive through a Chinatown or an Italian neighborhood in a major city and feel the urge to roll down their window and shout, "I want my America back!" Hispanic immigration seems threatening to so many because it's newer and closer to where they live. Take that discomfort, make its face an even more alien-seeming group, add in the threat of violence and turn the whole thing up to eleven, and you've got the no-go zones.
With the issue of same-sex marriage possibly resolved for good when the Supreme Court rules in a few months, this could be the campaign's new culture war, one that pits what those primary voters see as "our" America against an alien one that doesn't seem to them like America at all, where Spanish-speaking immigrants and terrorist sleeper cells join forces to conquer and remake the country from within. My guess is that before long, other Republican presidential candidates will chime in with warnings about the terrifying future where an archipelago of Muslim no-go zones spreads to cover all of America. So what if it isn't happening elsewhere and won't ever happen here? Once the candidates realize what a potent bit of fear-mongering the no-go zones could be, they won't be able to resist.