David Cameron nearly choked on his porridge the other day. So did I. That’s because a well-regarded American investigative journalist, Steve Emerson, appearing on Fox TV in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, said there are areas of Europe—he mentioned the French capital and Birmingham in England—that have been made ‘no go areas’ by their Muslim inhabitants.

The suggestion was that there are so many women in burkhas and mullahs holding shariah courts, that others—presumably non-Muslims, or maybe police—think twice before entering these places.

Times are too prickly to go around making such claims. Perhaps unsettled by the steady advance of his far-right rivals the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), British Prime Minister Cameron responded: “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot."

Fox and Emerson quickly apologized for having got it wrong but, this being America, it was also clarified – for viewers presumably—that these no-go zones weren’t actually officially demarcated as such. So that’s settled then: Americans and other foreigners are free to travel to Birmingham, a beautiful large city in the middle of England and home to one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, without having to wangle a Birmingham visa.

That would have been the end of it—it’s an on-again, off-again debate in the UK—but for the fact that another American then took up the theme and elaborated on it, of all places, in London. This man’s Bobby Jindal, Republican, a Hindu-to-Catholic convert and Louisiana governor. Plus, he’s considering standing for the 2016 US presidential election.

Jindal favours the concept of assimilation, which requires ethnic, religious and other minorities to follow the traditions and values—however abstract or poorly described—of the majority community.

In remarks that would warm the cockles of the far-right UKIP hearts, Jindal told an audience of British lawmakers and others this week that, “In the West, non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of Sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home."

“It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so called ‘no-go zone.’ The idea that a free country would allow for specific areas of its country to operate in an autonomous way that is not free and is in direct opposition to its laws is hard to fathom," he added. Extracts from his speech were reported by USA Today newspaper ahead of the event.

The remarks were reported widely in the US. A CNN journalist asked him to name these ‘no-go areas’ of England on camera, which Jindal failed to do. And Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer, told the pro-Democrat MSNBC channel, “I think Governor Jindal is protesting a bit too much. He might be trying to, you know, scrub some of the brown off his skin as he runs to the right in a Republican presidential exploratory bid."

Iftikhar added in a strongly worded reaction, “I think it’s the worst common denominator of American politics—to marginalize any minority demographic group."

Jindal probably wanted to test public opinion across the pond on an important matter that cuts across—or links if you like—domestic, foreign and security policy, in case he decides to jump into the presidential fray next year. But London reacted not at all.

One reason for that could be international politics: why round on a man who could end up being the most powerful man on the planet? Let’s hear a bit more of his ideas before making up our minds.

Another could be domestic politics: We are less than four months away from a general election in Britain with the campaign heating up unremittingly on immigration, courtesy of UKIP. Anything anyone says can raise temperatures even more.

A third reason is that the British, on the whole, are clearly undecided about the practical uses of assimilation (or integration, as the British call it)—unlike, say, the French, who are very clear that theirs is a modern, secular society, and therefore public displays of religious symbolism are a social anomaly. By public, of course, the French do not mean churches—no one’s about to pull down crosses from the steeple. Rather the emphasis is on personal displays (hijabs and headscarves, for example) in public places.

If anything the British are wary about laying down any social norms, although the merits of tolerance as a social value are emphasized with a degree of consistency by leading figures from all political parties, religions and ethnic groups.

I think the British have got it right, and the French have got it wrong. I also think Jindal was wrong to a) try and frame an important debate in provocative terms, and b) say what he did at this point in time, so soon after the outrageous Paris attacks.

In 2011, after the senseless murder of Indian student Anuj Bidve in Ordsall in the northern town of Salford, I too wrote about ‘no-go areas’ in the UK, but used the phrase in the context of a British government report. This report, published when Gordon Brown was chancellor of the exchequer, included Ordsall in a list of the 20 worst housing estates of Britain. But this list used crime as its indicator – gun culture and drugs rather than sharia courts or headscarves. That made for evidence.

Everyone knows to stay well away from such areas—from anecdotal evidence and lived experience. Blaming religious traditions for unproven boundaries of the mind is plain wrong, especially coming from a leader from the free world.

Close