Magazine Feature

How ISIS Has Declared War on Western Music

Courtesy of MEMRI

Members of ISIS forces in Libya burned musical instruments, including drums and saxophones, in a photo from 2015.

There are a number of reasons why the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) might have targeted Le Bataclan concert hall in Paris. According to the group’s own statement, it was a place “where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.” Maybe they knew Le Bataclan had once been Jewish-owned, or chose it simply because it would be a soft target. But the fact that it was a popular music venue playing host to an American band called Eagles of Death Metal may also have been significant. ISIS despises both America and popular music, and for some years has been building a particular hatred of its darker, louder forms.

At its birth, in Northern Syria in spring 2013, ISIS was a sinister puzzle. Why, when thousands were being killed in a brutal war between rebel groups and Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime, should this mysterious new rebel outfit care what people were wearing and watching and listening to? One young Syrian who lives in ISIS’ capital of Raqqa saw his best friend detained for several weeks for sporting a heavy metal T-shirt. Other Syrians were arrested for songs found on their mobile phones. ISIS diligently searched for minor infractions: pornography, music or anything that it considered satanic, demonic or otherwise “insulting Allah.” In ISIS’ sliding scale of punishments, a single song was worth between 30 and 40 lashes with a whip or stick. In one incident at the beginning of 2015, a group of musicians was apparently given 90 lashes each for the crime of playing an electronic keyboard.

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ISIS’ religious police, Hisbah, pay particular attention to metalheads, goths and other subcultures. Much like medieval inquisitors, they see Satan (shaytan) and supernatural beings (jinns) everywhere and in anything. For an organization that has banned skinny jeans and drums as symbols of godless Western decadence, rock music that hinted at darkness, Satanism or raw sexuality was always going to be hit hard.

But there’s a risible irony at the heart of ISIS’ crackdown on pop’s darker musical genres: Many of the young Europeans and Americans who headed to Syria are exactly the kind of seekers who, years earlier, might have been knee-deep in some other oppositional subculture. Long before she changed her name to Umm Hussain and departed for the Islamic State to marry a British jihadi, British mother Sally Ann Jones was a punk rocker. Until shortly before they left for Syria in 2012 and 2013, both the now-likely deceased German Denis Cuspert and West Londoner Abdel Majed Abdel Bary were failed rappers.

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Now young men like this have flung themselves into a new movement that just happens to be a death cult and dead end. If and when Syria’s young people do rise up against ISIS, the more traditional forms of youth-culture rebellion -- having sex, doing drugs, even wearing a Metallica T-shirt -- are going to become revolutionary acts.  

James Harkin’s book Hunting Season, about ISIS’ campaign of kidnapping foreign hostages, has just been published by Hachette.

This story will appear in the Nov.  28 issue of Billboard.