The so-called Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the recent bombing of an Ariane Grande concert in Manchester. Whether it really was involved or not has yet to be verified. What is not in doubt, however, is that IS extremists hate everything the popstar represents. She is an independent young woman with a mind of her own and thousands of loyal followers keen to follow in her footsteps. To IS, Grande lives up to the tagline of her tour: she really is a “dangerous woman”.
Terrorism is a “communicative act” – its targets are not only those who died or were injured – but the wider audiences drawn in by its spectacular violence. Terrorists are frequently defined because they target non-military, non-state infrastructure or people. They do so to generate fear and panic.
Targeting is never accidental. Strategic choices are made to generate that chosen effect. In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, market squares, queues for pay cheques, music shops, ice cream stores, beauty parlours, airports, Sufi shrines, schools and political rallies have all fallen victim to terrorist attacks. They were chosen because these are places where everyday living and politics happen.
In Paris, London, Madrid, Bali, Tunisia and now Manchester, everyday living and politics is in the cafes, on the bus, the train, the beach, in nightclubs, shopping malls and music venues. These everyday places are where “politics is at”. They are the ordinary mundane expressions of “togetherness” and worldliness that enable societies to function.
Music epitomises this. It has that ability to unite and connect with people regardless of faith, age, race or gender. There is “collective effervescence” (or karma of the crowd). Music literally brings people into sync.
Silencing the ‘imperfect’
Groups like IS, Al-Qaeda and others have a particularly narrow idea of politics and who gets to be “where it’s at” or is allowed to be in sync with each other. At the heart of their ideology is a belief that humanity can be perfected and that those who cannot be – who are forever impure – should remain at best outside of politics, out of sync and silenced. IS and groups like it will not tolerate “others” or share the world. And that refusal to accommodate diversity, plurality and hybridity requires them to silence the imperfect: women, homosexuals and people of other faiths or sects.
Violently targeting a gathering predominantly of women and children, where such togetherness is experienced, partly reflects a strategic choice to shock Western audiences and a tactical decision to focus on a “soft target”. It is also a result of the gendered moral geography of IS and groups like it, one that seeks to create a pure Islamic polity (according to their terms). They target places that disrupt their narrow vision of moral living.
Ariana Grande’s fanbase is predominantly young and female. As Ann Powers, NPR critic wrote, Grande’s music and her politics empower her listeners to be “sexy and confident like her [the woman on stage]”. Her lyrics are about relationships and forbidden romance. She sings about danger and reckless, bad decisions and resists a good/bad girl binary. This is not just about “girl power” but the opportunity for women and girls to simply be present in the public sphere, unashamed of their bodies, their voices, or their existence. She sings about bringing about togetherness.
This of course stands in stark contrast with the promises groups like IS make to women. They promise that “good Muslim women” are protected, privatised as wives and mothers of the mujahedeen. The reality is that life is hard and brutish and the ability to live up to their standards of a “good Muslim woman” almost impossible so fear and punishment dominate. There is a toxic masculinity at play, one which insists that men can and should patrol, police, and punish women simply on the basis of their status as men. They further allege that Muslim men in Europe are emasculated, unable to fulfil this role, ground down by feminists and racist state actors.
This toxic masculinity is not inherent in Islam. There are countless examples of alternative Muslim male role models, from modern day heroes like Muhammad Ali and cricketer Moeen Ali, to the historical poet Rumi and 8th century biologist abu Uthman al-Jahith. Nor must we assume that Muslim women are always victims and oppressed, unable to join in with the music.
It’s vital to refrain from assuming Muslim women’s veiling practices or other cultural practices in the UK stem from the same ideology as IS. Moreover, if we look at various lone attackers from the far right, they also display contempt and hatred towards women. The American Elliot Rodger showed the world that misogyny kills when he murdered six people and injured seven in a shooting (known as the Isla Vista Shootings) in May 2014. He left a 140-page manifesto and YouTube video explaining his actions as the work of a “true alpha male” taking “pleasure in slaughtering all of you” as punishment for not finding him attractive.
In response to such killing, should we shrink, frightened, into the shadows, or throw off the shackles and dance? I argue that our resistance to such totalitarian attitudes lies in the music, in frivolity. It is in comedy and humour, it is in street festivals, carnivals, kite-flying and guerrilla gardening. It is in rallies, tea parties, and in yarn-bombing. It’s in comic books such as Ms Marvel, currently written by Willow Wilson, and diverse “Bad-Ass Muslim Superheroes”. It is, as Hilary Pilkington writing in The Conversation argues, refusing to be silenced.
Such non-violent resistance to extremism is important, although it is not, of course, the only bulwark against terrorism. But, pushing Hilary’s point further, resistance and resilience to terrorism are not just in the formal spheres of debate and dialogue. Sometimes it’s in the music that makes us smile, that makes us move our feet in time with each other – and as Ariana Grande lyric’s in Put Your Hearts Up goes: “If we give a little love, maybe we can change the world…”