The phrase "Islamic no-go zones" sums up so much about the age we're living in. Touted by right-wing media and politicians, the idea is essentially: there are lawless Islamist ghettos in European cities, run by jihadist gangs intent on imposing Sharia law, where police are too scared to enter and any non-Muslims are likely to be attacked. It's a clever propaganda tool: "The enemy is in your backyard! Support our political party or buy our paper to do something about it! Even if we're not sure what that something is!"
However, the concept is the product of some pretty heavy exaggeration, and some wilfully inaccurate reporting by outlets like Breitbart and Fox News. There are areas in lots of major European cities with large Muslim populations, and crime happens there. But people commit crime in other areas, too, and there's no credible evidence that police have ever been unable to enter any one of the supposed no-gone zones across the continent. Still, that's not to say the notion isn't harmful and likely to attach unnecessary stigma to already-othered people living in areas singled out for their apparent danger.
So how does it feel to live in these supposed no-go zones? Are they really hotbeds of radicalisation, or just Muslim-majority areas utilised by right-wingers looking for something to fuel their rhetoric? We sent reporters from a load of our European offices to a few of them to find out.
Bury Park, Luton
Bury Park has been labelled everything from an "Islamic ghetto" to an area the police are afraid to enter. VICE UK reporter Nick Chester spoke to Shakeel, a longtime resident, to get his perspective.
VICE: What do you make of the press reports that Bury Park is a no-go area for non-Muslims?
Shakeel: It's nothing like a no-go area. You've got so many different types of people here. You've got Romanians, Polish, Bulgarians, Hungarians and, of course, you've got the Bengali and Pakistani community. Look around you: we all live together and no one's bothering no one. I think some people have a view of what it's like here without actually coming here and looking at the area. My son's got a few American friends that he talks to on the internet who support Donald Trump, and they get on really well, believe it or not. He always says, "Come over and see it for yourself and you'll see how different it is to how you think it is."
Do you think the negative media attention has had any effect on residents?
I don't think people really listen to it, especially the communities in Luton. There's integration here. You'll have a mixture of black and white guys walking together and talking. No one's going to shout out a bad white word, or black word, or the P-word, or anything like that.
What are the main problems the community actually faces?
There are just one or two bad people here. A couple of times, Britain First have come here and tried to cause commotion. In the 1990s we had a really bad drug problem as well.
So you don't think it's an Islamic ghetto?
No, just look around you!
Rosengård, Malmö, Sweden
Rosengård was initially labelled a no-go zone after riots broke out there in 2008. It's since been a favourite of the right, who – due to its gang problems – use it as an example of the supposed violent nature of Muslim-majority enclaves. VICE Sweden reporter Theo Hagman-Rogowski spoke to 24-year-old teacher Leo, who has lived in the area for three years.
What's your impression of living here?
Leo: It's worked out fine for me. Nothing's happened to me during these years, despite what the media says about the area.
How do you feel about the things you see and read about Rosengård?
I think it's wrong to denigrate a place, and it's very unfortunate that Sweden and the rest of the world only get to see the bad side of Rosengård. Everything is not bad, even if things happen every now and then. I feel the coverage is poor in regards to the area as a whole. Things happen in Rosengård – you can't deny that. On the other hand, the criminality isn't limited to Rosengård. It exists elsewhere, too, but it's become something of a favourite focus area when it comes to referencing the city's criminal activity.
Do you think politicians or the media have any specific points they want to make by focusing so much on Rosengård?
There could be. Xenophobic political parties can use Rosengård as part of their strategy, because of the high concentration of immigrants and the occurrence of crime.
What would you say is the worst thing about living here?
I've personally never been subjected to any crimes in Rosengård. The worst thing I've seen during my three years here is a half-burned car.
Montreuil, Paris, France
American right-wing blogger Pamela Geller has claimed that Montreuil is a no-go zone. Seine-Saint-Denis, the wider district that it falls within, has also been labelled by right-wing think-tank the Gatestone Institute as one of a number of "separate Islamic societies cut off from the French state and where Islamic Sharia law is rapidly displacing French civil law". VICE France reporter Orane Servanton spoke to 41-year-old Rabah, who has lived in the area for 12 years.
How's life in Montreuil?
Rabah: Everything's going well. People are very friendly to each other and there's a good atmosphere.
Pamela Geller has called Montreuil a no-go zone. What do you think about the way the media and politicians depict it?
We have a bad rep because we're part of the Seine-Saint-Denis, but I think we shouldn't underestimate people – we tend to have several sources of information and make sure not to believe anyone. There's a bad side to every city, so if we were to believe every person saying bad things about Montreuil, we would actually be playing along with them.
What, in your view, is the worst area in Paris?
I've worked all over Paris and can't think of a specific area. The same goes for the rest of the country. Danger can be everywhere. I've worked during nights and taken a lot of buses in the middle of the night, and never had any problem.
Wedding, Berlin, Germany
Wedding was labelled a no-go area after a mail service issued a statement that its deliverymen were no longer willing to deliver packages there, claiming they had been targeted for scams and robberies by gangs. The perpetrators were believed to be Romanian, but because of the large Muslim population various right-wing websites have since linked its supposed no-go status to Turks and Islam. VICE Germany reporter Ani Kutlu spoke to 25-year-old plasterer Pascal, who has lived there for six years.
What's it like living in Wedding?
Pascal: I'm 25 years old and have some muscles, so there's nothing to worry about for me, but when two girls like you walk around this area, your phone might be gone faster than you think. When your photographer just took out her camera I looked around to check if someone was about to rip it out of her hands. Three or four weeks ago, two guys carrying beverage crates ran past me. I immediately knew they'd stolen those crates, and that happened in broad daylight! You have to be careful around here.
What do you like about living here?
The Turkish markets are a big plus. Their products are always fresh, and not too expensive either.
What's your least favourite thing about living here?
The population density is a bit too high. And the poverty: I've been walking around for maybe two or three hours and have already had three different people wave their empty cup at me asking for some change. Also, people often get mugged here.
What do you feel when you read all those negative media reports about Wedding?
I don't really care. I don't let it affect me. I think the situation here is actually worse than they say in the media.
Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium
Molenbeek been described as the "European capital of terrorism" and "a magnet for jihadists, gangs, drugs and lawlessness". VICE Belgium reporter Peter Detailleur spoke to 27-year-old communications officer Caroline, who has been living there for the past seven months.
What's it like living in Molenbeek?
Caroline: Despite its bad reputation, I really like it here. When I told people I'd be moving here, their reactions were often along the lines of, "Are you sure?" or, "Isn't it too dangerous there?" They were afraid for me. But I like it; it's a brewing pot of different cultures. Most people are really friendly and open, and I felt welcome from the start.
What kind of things have you heard politicians or media say about your area, and how does that make you feel?
The biggest stereotype is that it's filled with Muslims who aren't well integrated. The previous mayor, Philippe Moureaux, was heavily criticised for his integration policy. Some media and politicians liked to point out that he let too many Muslims live here, which allowed the creation of some sort of ghetto. When I told people I'd be moving to Molenbeek, they probably imagined me in this God-forsaken hellhole filled with terrorists and street scum.
Have you had any bad experiences during your time here?
Only one comes to mind. One night, I was walking home alone at 3PM. Suddenly, a man came out of nowhere and began following me. He was hitting on me, and I couldn't get him to leave. He followed me home and tried to come in with me, but I pushed him away. It was a little scary, but he didn't do me any harm. And I think that sort of thing happens anywhere.
And good experiences?
In general, living here has been a good experience. I like the fact that a lot of different cultures are living so close to each other.
Schilderswijk, The Hague, The Netherlands
Schilderswijk has been branded the "Sharia triangle" by the press, and described by numerous US and European media outlets as an area in which orthodox Islamic values dominate life. Its reputation stems from allegations that people have had their actions and clothes criticised for being non-Islamic. VICE Netherlands reporter Celine Toering spoke to 30-year-old creative Daniëlle, who has lived there for there years.
What's life like in Schilderswijk?
Daniëlle: Awesome! I really have nothing bad to say about the area.
What do you like best about living here?
The diversity, the liveliness and the atmosphere on the street. It's always nice and crowded here, and I really like that.
What do you least enjoy about living here?
To be honest, there really isn't much to find fault in with about this neighbourhood. What bothers me most are all the misconceptions people have about Schilderswijk.
What kind of things do you hear or read about it?
That Sharia law will be implemented here, that the area has to be searched for terrorists and that it's very dangerous here. And I often hear people wonder why the hell I'd want to live here.
How do you feel about that?
I just think: 'Come on by! Then you can see with your own eyes what it's like around here.'
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