Why ISIS Likely Targeted an Ariana Grande Concert: Women & Music (Guest Essay)

Police and fans close to the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England.
 Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Police and fans close to the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England. 

While much is still unknown about the Manchester Arena suicide bombing following an Ariana Grande concert on Monday night and the motives of 22-year-old British man Salman Adebi, the Islamic State have claimed the perpetrator as one of its own. That may mean no more than this Manchester man had spent too much time watching ISIS propaganda on the internet, but that Abedi chose the foyer of a concert hall, and a performer known for her feminist stance and her sexual confidence, seems unlikely to have been a coincidence given that a hatred of Western pop music, combined with viciously medieval ideas of female virtue and vice, has been central to the rise of the Islamic State since its beginning.

In the aftermath of the Bataclan concert hall attack in November 2015, much was written on the Islamic State’s war on Western music, which began long ago. Almost as soon as they took territory and power in Syria, militants began smashing up musical instruments, banning music radio and trying to paint musicians as criminals or drug-addled. The Islamic State’s energetic religious police (hisbah) took particular exception to anything outr√© or rebellious, like heavy metal music or anything showing off the female form.

In many ways, the Islamic State’s distrust of pop music and of “free mixing” women was all of a piece. One of the first acts of Islamic State’s militants in Syria, even before they’d had the confidence to carve out a state, was to move into the classrooms and separate the boys from the girls. It offended their sense of religious dignity, and it didn’t only apply to students; they also separated the teachers by gender, the better to keep men away from girls. Not adhering to the new rules resulted in the school closing.

The Islamic State’s hatred of women began as a quasi-benevolent protection racket -- offering women of all ages marriage and security in return for their independence, and their bodies. Women in Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq remain unable to move around without a chaperone and are forced to wear the face veil whenever they exit their front doors; their function, for the most part, is to make babies and raise a new generation of children in the image of the Islamic State. Journalists who made the mistake of venturing into their territory have gotten into trouble simply for looking at “their women”; one reporter colleague was kidnapped in spring 2013 and gruesomely tortured for the “crime” of taking pictures of their niqab-clad girlfriends.

Thus far, the announced list of victims in Manchester is heavy with girls and young women. That might have been part of the point. The Islamic State’s statement on the atrocity noted that their soldier had targeted “the gathering of the Crusaders” in a “shameless concert area.” To them, the empowered sexuality of a singer like Ariana Grande appears to have been a dangerous, godless combination -- one which their self-appointed witch-finder went to murderous lengths to put back in a box.

James Harkin is Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London and a reporter on Syria and the rise of Islamic State.


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