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Misinformed expert or misinformation network?

Terrorism "expert" Steve Emerson is more than a comic buffoon. His claims about no-go zones for non-Muslims in European cities are just part of a wealthy network spreading Islamophobia across the west.

On Sunday, the veteran terrorism expert Steven Emerson appeared on Fox News to discuss Europe's Muslim population and claimed that Birmingham was an example of a 'totally Muslim [city] where non-Muslims just simply don't go in'.  The claim led to him being ridiculed online, and after the news media picked up on the story he issued an apology to 'the beautiful city of Birmingham' for his 'terrible error'.  So high profile was the story, that the Prime Minister David Cameron felt moved to comment, reportedly describing Emerson as 'a complete idiot'. 

The claims were idiotic.  But Emerson is not simply an 'idiot', or a hopelessly misinformed 'expert'.  An examination of his background, the sources of his ideas, and the funding for his think tank the Investigative Project on Terrorism, show that he is part of what the Center for American Progress in a widely cited 2011 report Fear Inc. described as ‘a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts’ that ‘peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam’.

Emerson's now notorious claim was made during a discussion of supposed 'no-go zones' in European cities.  Speaking to Fox News's Jeanine Pirro, Emerson claimed that such areas, where the 'Muslim density is very intense', act as a 'country within a country'.  Muslim leaders, Emerson claimed, use these 'zones' as 'leverage against the host country, as political and military leverage'.  In addition to his comment about Birmingham, during the course of the interview Emerson also claimed that in 'parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn't dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.' Though he apologised for his comments about Birmingham, in a subsequent interview with BBC Radio 4's PM programme, he stood by his claims about 'Muslim religious police' in London, and his wider claims about Islamic 'no go zones' elsewhere in Europe.  Questioned about his sources of information, he refused to name any, saying he was taking responsibility for the error, but did refer to consultants and researchers who worked for him and to 'people I know and sources I'd relied on'.

The claims about Islamic 'no go zones', in Paris and Birmingham, may have been prompted by an article by the Canadian journalist Matthew Fisher on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In it Fisher claimed that 'Paris and Birmingham have become so riven with Islamic radicalism in recent years that parts of them have almost become No-Go Zones for the authorities’.   Such claims, however, do not originate with Fisher. As Emerson commented in the PM interview, 'It's been discussed for years now'. 

In Britain, the notion of Muslim dominated 'no go zones' has been one key concept in a much broader assault by the conservative movement on British 'multiculturalism'.  In January 2008, the then Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote of 'no go areas' in an opinion piece for the Telegraph.  A leading right-wing evangelical, Nazir-Ali wrote of the decline of Christianity in Britain, mass immigration and the philosophy of 'multiculturalism', and went on to claim that a 'resurgence of the ideology of Islamic extremism' had 'turn[ed] already separate communities into "no-go" areas where adherence to this ideology has become a mark of acceptability’.  Nazir-Ali's claims were repeated across much of the UK and international media, and the blogosphere, and they subsequently featured in Robert Spencer's book Stealth Jihad, published later that year. The following month, the Telegraph repeated Nazir-Ali's claims in a report on two American-born evangelical Christian ministers who claimed to have been threatened with hate crime charges by a police community support officer whilst handing out religious leaflets on Alum Rock Road in Birmingham. The two men subsequently brought legal proceedings against West Midlands Police and the Telegraph published their story, which was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Birmingham Mail, Rod Liddle at the Spectator, Melanie Phillips, and other right-wing activists and outlets including, in the United States, by Family Security Matters and the Islamophobic blog The Gates of Vienna.

The myth of Islamic 'no go zones' has depended on the conflation of urban poverty, crime and demographic change with 'Islamic extremism', and as the myth has spread, Birmingham, along with the East End of London, has often been cited.  In a 2010 interview with the Jerusalem Post, for example, the neoconservative activist Douglas Murray warned of 'no go areas' establishing themselves in Birmingham if the government did not act against immigration.[i]  Another example is from the British neoconservative magazine Standpoint, which in January 2011 published an anonymous piece attributed to a vicar's wife who had recently returned to London after living for four years in inner city Birmingham.  The piece – sections of which were reproduced on the Telegraph blog of Ed West, author of The Diversity Illusion: What we got wrong about immigration & how to set it right – complained of crime, urban decay and white flight in a Birmingham neighbourhood, and claimed that Muslim immigrants were living in 'separation from the Western world' with little 'contact with the civic and legal structure of a Western state'.

Such arguments have been echoed in less measured tones by the far right in Britain.  In 2011, the story of the two Christian pastors threatened with arrest in Birmingham was picked up by the British National Party.  It ran the two and a half year old story on its website as if it were current news; later claiming it did so as an 'experiment' to illustrate the way 'important facts are “buried” by the controlled media'.  This followed the publication the year before on the BNP's YouTube channel of an eight minute video showing multicultural neighbourhoods of Birmingham which the party claimed were dangerous 'no go areas' and 'occupied territory'. Similar language was adopted by the BNP's rivals on the far right, the violently anti-Muslim English Defence League, which in 2013 referred to 'an "occupied territory" or a "no-go area" in the heart of our second city' in a statement on its planned march in Birmingham.

Within the Counterjihad movement, the major propagator of the Islamic 'no go zones' myth has been the New York based think tank, the Gatestone Institute, an organisation chaired by the Bush era diplomat and foreign policy hardliner, John Bolton.  In August 2011, Gatestone published an article by its senior fellow, Soeren Kern, claiming that 'Islamic extremists' were creating areas 'off-limits to non-Muslims' that functioned 'as microstates governed by Islamic Sharia law'.  It referred to the then 751 'Sensitive Urban Zones' officially designated by the French Government.  These neighbourhoods, many of which are located in Greater Paris, are characterised by high proportions of public housing, higher rates of poverty and unemployment, and are inhabited by a high proportion of immigrants and ethnic minorities.  Kern claimed in the piece that the French state had 'lost control' of such areas, where an 'estimated 5 million Muslims live'. 

'[T]housands of Muslims,' in these neighbourhoods, Kern wrote, 'are closing off streets and sidewalks (and by extension, are closing down local businesses and trapping non-Muslim residents in their homes and offices) to accommodate overflowing crowds for Friday prayers’.  Gatestone's claims about France's Sensitive Urban Zones appear to have originated with the influential neoconservative commentator, Daniel Pipes, who in a periodically updated blog first posted in November 2006 wrote of the '751 No-Go Zones of France' with large Muslim populations.  Pipes would later travel to several Muslim majority neighbourhoods in Europe, including a number of French suburbs, and having done so expressed regret (in January 2013) at having described them as 'no-go zones'.  In reality, he found such areas were 'unthreatening, routine places', 'very mild, even dull' compared to impoverished urban neighbourhoods in the United States, 'buildings are intact, greenery abounds, and order prevails'.

The claims about the 'No-Go Zones of France', which influenced Emerson through one channel or another, were extended in Gatestone's account to much of Western Europe.  Kern's article began with the case of Britain, which provided the main evidence for the claim that 'Islamic extremists' were 'stepping up the creation of "no-go" areas in European cities'.  Kern reported that in Britain a now defunct group known as Muslims Against the Crusades (a tiny inflammatory organisation associated with the provocative conservative Muslim activist Anjem Choudary) had 'targeted' parts of London, and ten other English cities, including Birmingham, for 'blanket Sharia rule'.  The article implied that this pattern was being repeated across Europe and that 'no-go' zones were also appearing in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.  Gatestone's claims were picked up by Front Page Magazine, which quoted Nazir-Ali's claims about Britain three years earlier, whilst in Britain, that same month, the Christian charity, the Barnabas Fund, with which Nazir-Ali has been affiliated, distributed thousands of copies of a pamphlet to churches warning of the 'Islamisation of the UK'.[ii]

Funding networks

Emerson's sources therefore seem to have been a variety of Islamophobic materials circulated by a range of UK and US neoconservative think tanks, magazines and other media, as well as by the far right.  These various groups are themselves connected through networks of shared personnel and funding.  As noted above, Emerson runs a Washington DC-based think tank called the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which the Center for American Progress listed as one of 'five key think tanks... primarily responsible for orchestrating the majority of anti-Islam messages polluting our national discourse today.'

US public records show that the largest single donor to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) in each of the years 2010 to 2012 was the Middle East Forum (MEF), the ultra conservative organisation run by the aforementioned Daniel Pipes. Pipes' MEF, which is itself one of the five key organisations identified by the Center for American Progress as pushing anti-Islam messages, gave $167,085 to IPT in 2012 ($512,500 in 2011 and $480,000 in 2010); amongst its largest grants.  In addition to funding a host of pro Israel and Islamophobic groupings, the MEF also supports two more of the five key organisations listed in Fear Inc: Jihad Watch and the neoconservative Center for Security Policy (CSP).  The CSP received $200,000 from MEF in 2012, the second largest grant it gave that year.  The largest was the aforementioned Gatestone Institute, which received $1,098,878 from MEF in 2012 (and a further $1,383,471 in 2013). Gatestone reported $1,098,878 million in total revenues in its 2012 annual return, suggesting that its funding came exclusively from the MEF.  However, MEF, in turn receives a majority of its funding from a foundation run by Gatestone president Nina Rosenwald. Of the $1,792,100 of MEF income listed on the Conservative Transparency website, a total of $1,212,000 came from Rosenwald's New York based Abstraction Fund.

Though it is based in New York, Gatestone is notably transatlantic in its makeup, with several European-based board members including three from the UK – Viscountess Bearsted (formerly Caroline Sacks), Baroness Caroline Cox and Lord Daniel Finkelstein – together with a Paris-based columnist for the London Daily Telegraph.  Baroness Cox sits on the cross benches of the House of Lords having been expelled from the Conservative Party for signing a letter supporting a UKIP vote in the European elections.  Along with UKIP peer Lord Pearson, she invited the Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders to the UK only for him to be deported as a threat to the 'fundamental interests of society'.  Daniel Finkelstein, an influential figure in the Conservative Party, is chief leader writer at The Times and chair of Policy Exchange, the conservative think tank at the forefront of what we have called the 'cold war on British Muslims'.  Policy Exchange once had to withdraw a report after the BBC revealed that receipts alleged to show hate literature being sold at UK Mosques were not genuine.

Gatestone's UK links don't stop there.  Among the other recipients of Abstraction Fund grants is the London-based neoconservative think tank, Henry Jackson Society, which in recent years has become increasingly shrill in its anti-Muslim statements.   Its associate director, Douglas Murray, was listed on the Gatestone website as a board member until as recently as October 2014.  Other British activists still appear as writers on the Gatestone website. They include former 'Islamist' turned neocon, Shiraz Maher, who is research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College London.  His ICSR colleague, Alexander Meleagrou Hitchens is also listed. 

ICSR staff have been widely interviewed in the aftermath of the attack in Paris.  The Institute has strong links with pro Israel groups:  donors include, for example, the conservative Atkin family's Catkin Pussywillow Trust, which also gives to Zionist causes such as the Jerusalem Foundation and to the UK fundraising body for the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), a private university in Herzliya, Israel.  The IDC, which offers preferential access to prospective students from elite IDF units and former intelligence operatives, is a partner organisation of the ICSR, and perhaps unsurprisingly is another recipient of funds from Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum.

A wider problem

The example of the ICSR at King College illustrates the broader problem that faces journalists seeking apparently more respectable sources of expertise on terrorism, that many apparent 'experts' based in universities are linked to highly conservative, sometimes anti-Muslim funding sources, or to military, police or intelligence organisations.  In both cases this raises questions about their objectivity and independence. This question goes right to the heart of the problem of terrorism expertise. Almost every survey of the field notes the difficulty of agreeing on a definition of terrorism.  In the end, the term is hopelessly mired in ideology and in practice is usually used to refer to political violence of which the user disapproves.  As a result the field of terrorism studies has remained highly politicised and prospective 'experts' find themselves caught between scholarly approaches and the demands of the 'users' of terrorism expertise in government, police, military and intelligence agencies. The best available book length account of the phenomenon of terrorism expertise, by Harvard sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky, puts this difficulty as follows:

terrorism studies researchers needed to maintain boundaries around their field sufficient to maintain the appearance of autonomy and yet simultaneously keep these boundaries flexible enough to maintain engagement with both academia and the state

Some in the terrorism studies field have recognised these difficulties.  Former CIA field officer and qualified psychiatrist and sociologist, Marc Sageman, for example, provoked vigorous debate among terrorism researchers when he argued that terrorism studies post 9/11 had involved 'an explosion of speculations with little empirical grounding'.  Addressing the very issue which the Emerson case highlights Sageman, who will be one of the keynote speakers at our conference on 'Understanding Conflict' in Bath in June, notes that 'self proclaimed' experts

fill the airwaves and freely give their opinions to journalists, thereby framing terrorist events for the public. However, they are not truly scholars, are not versed in the scientific method, and often pursue a political agenda. They are not trained to detect or analyze trends, but they certainly like to make sensational statements. They cannot be relied upon to advance the field of terrorism research, as they are more advocates than objective scholars. The press plays a role in echoing the most outrageous and sensationalist claims.

As Sageman notes, and other terrorism experts have acknowledged, the problems with terrorism expertise are exacerbated by the intense demand from the media for commentary in the aftermath of attacks on Western targets.  Usually in such circumstances the news has little information to go on and as a result journalists hit their contacts with demands for instant analysis. In most cases the experts called on will have even less knowledge about what is happening than the journalists. But the combination of pressure from the news and a desire by certain 'experts' to seize a part of the agenda produce analysis lacking in empirical basis and strong on ideology and conjecture.  This is true of both the non-scholarly experts like Emerson, and those with formal academic qualifications working within universities.  The result is that viewers and listeners, if they only listen to the wisdom of the terror expert in the aftermath of an attack, get a hopelessly speculative and alarmist account of the nature of the terrorism and the threat it poses.


[i] Ilan Evyatar, 'A political culture gone bad', Jerusalem Post, 15 July 2010, p.13. Murray more recently referred back to Nazir-Ali's comments in a Spectator blog in January 2013, referring to him as 'one of Britain’s best and most courageous men'. (http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:KB0HWMZG4DwJ:blogs.spectator.co.uk/douglas-murray/2013/01/no-go-britain/+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk)

[ii] Dipesh Gadher, 'Christian charity to fight Britain's "slide into Islam"', Sunday Times, 7 August 2011, p.12.

 

 

About the authors

David Miller is professor of sociology at the University of Bath and ESRC global uncertainties leadership fellow (2013-16).

Tom Mills is lecturer in sociology at Aston University.  He is the author of 'The BBC: Myth of a Public Service'.


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