When the world looks so bleak that all we can do is laugh, what we laugh at often reveals more than we think.
The news in Europe over recent weeks has certainly been bleak. Since the atrocities in Paris, almost every day has seen new arrests of Islamic militants or further futile warnings from politicians and security chiefs about the unprecedented danger our societies are in.
Against this backdrop of dead journalists, dead cartoonists, dead Jews and dire warnings, it seemed a couple of weeks ago as though there were some "light" relief provided by America. On one segment of Fox News, terrorism expert Steven Emerson described parts of Paris as "no-go zones," where the residents apparently let it be known that they would rather police themselves and torch cars, and the police apparently feel the same way. He went on to say that the same situation exists in Britain, notably in parts of Birmingham, which, said Emerson, was a "Muslim only city," where non-Muslims simply 'don't go.'
The comments were immediately picked up by Twitter and the hashtag "#FoxNewsFacts" started to trend. People contributed amusing takes about the city. The opportunity to bash "stupid Americans" in general, and Fox News in particular, was a gift horse too good to resist. Soon the Twitter sensation became a political game as well. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was prompted to comment on the story. He joked that he had "choked on his porridge" when he heard about the Emerson comment, said he thought it must be an April fool, and said that Emerson was "clearly a complete idiot."
Emerson immediately apologized for his uncharacteristic mistake. Birmingham is not a Muslim-only city, although parts of it may be; nor is it true (as I know from many trips there over the years) that non-Muslims do not go there. Emerson was absolutely right to apologize.
Fox News, however, doubled down by repeating the claim that some of the suburbs of Paris, among other areas in France, are effectively "no-go" areas. It looked as if the hilarity would continue indefinitely. The BBC and other media competitors had a field day running stories on this, there being nothing quite so vital to seize upon as the public humiliation of a rival. The story seemed to reach a peak when the Mayor of Paris threatened to sue Fox News for harming the reputation of the city.
As it happens, I do not like the term "no-go zones" to describe the areas of certain cities in Europe where majority Muslim populations can imbue a feeling of separatism from wider society. This is a knotty and evolving problem. Daniel Pipes is one of the few scholars to have aptly described the difficulty in describing these areas, which are emerging across Europe. None is a place where non-Muslims are actually "forbidden" to go. None is a place with an entirely different rule of law. But they do exist. They are places where behavior that is commonplace in wider society would certainly be discouraged, sometimes intimidatingly so.
From experience, I know there are problems that can come along with such a separation. For instance, many people born into these areas are likely to grow up in something that is, if not in outright opposition to, then certainly parallel with, "mainstream" society. Seven years ago, while interviewing people in some of these areas, I heard testimony from women who had, for instance, been mistreated by their local sharia tribunals -- tribunals to which they had gone without being aware of their rights as British women. Granted that those with whom I spoke had subsequently become aware of the differences between the law of the land and sharia law. The witnesses were inevitably self-selecting in that they were willing to be interviewed, and by a man. But there is no doubting that some people in these areas lead a life that is sealed off -- indeed, separate from -- the rest of society.
It is certainly true that there are suburbs of Paris where the realities are far starker than those in Birmingham. When it comes to an area such as Malmö in Sweden, for instance, it is fairly undeniable that Daniel Pipes's improved suggestion for a name for such places -- "semi-autonomous sectors" -- is close to the mark.
Almost nobody denies that Europe has an integration problem. But while occasionally acknowledging it, almost nobody has any idea of what to do about it.
Which brings me back to Fox News. Because, amid all the giggling and the twitter hashtags, something dark is going on in Britain and France.
Last year in the UK, we discovered that a portion of Birmingham's secular state schools had been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. The "Trojan Horse" plot discoveries led to a set of revelations about what was being taught at Muslim-majority schools in Muslim-dominant areas. The results of these discoveries -- which included teachings that Muslims were to distance themselves from non-Muslims, look down on them and not take them as friends -- shocked the nation. It still seems shaken. Yet most Muslim leaders and Muslim communal organizations in the UK simply denied the findings of successive government-led inquiries into these Birmingham schools. Instead of tackling the outrages, they dismissed them as some "Islamophobic" plot. This widely noticed rejection of reality has itself concerned the politicians and the public.
Of course, Paris has suffered far more visibly and brutally in recent weeks. The Mayor of Paris should not make a priority of worrying about how accurately or not Fox News portrays her city. A far more urgent concern is to make sure that no more Jews or journalists are murdered in her city by domestically-produced jihadists. Stop that happening, and she will find that Paris's reputation as an idyllic city might yet be mended. But as the Mayor of Paris -- like the Prime Minister of Great Britain -- lined up to savage a foreign news station, it seemed that we were witnessing an example of what they call "displacement:" it is so much easier to laugh at Fox News than to deal with the jolting nugget of truth that may have been exaggerated. So much easier to choke on your porridge at the "idiocy" of an American than to stop your schools from being lost to extremist ideologies. And so much easier to talk of "suing" a news channel than to prevent atrocities of the kind we saw last month from happening again in your city. We may be used to shooting messengers. But now we do not do even that. We just giggle at them.