How Music, or lack thereof, illustrates many of the multicultural divides between Muslim communities and white British communities, one year after the Manchester Arena Attack.
by Rumy Hasan, University of Sussex and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths
In the aftermath of the 22nd May 2017 Manchester Arena atrocity, and again during its recent first anniversary commemoration, a fact that remains completely unremarked upon is the composition of the victims — none of the 22 killed were Muslim, despite Greater Manchester having a large Muslim population. So what might explain this? Chance is, of course, a possibility, especially given the apparently random nature of the attack. But from the various footages of the Ariana Grande concert, it appears that very few, if any of the fans were recognizably Muslim – there were no hijab-wearing girls or bearded young men in Islamic robes in attendance, which have become so common not just in the Manchester area but throughout the country.
Furthermore, and this generalisation should not be deemed controversial, I would suggest that very few Muslims were present at the concert, and that the reason for this is a reflection of our diverse, multicultural society – we have long been told by all and sundry that this is a cause for celebration – in which certain ‘communities’ have very different values and mores than the mainstream, so that their children are brought up accordingly and this applies particularly to Muslims. Simply put, there is no way that “modest” Muslim girls and women and “pious” boys and young men would be permitted to attend concerts by western artists – and certainly not one by a scantily-clad female pop star.
Nearby Oldham experienced convulsive riots in 2001 that led to a public inquiry and the publication of the Cantle Report, one of whose seminal findings was the phenomenon of “parallel lives”, whereby Asian Muslims were leading lives more akin to those of the countries from where they originated, Bangladesh and Pakistan, rather than those of modern Europeans. It is doubtless this reality that is a key reason for the absence of Muslims from that fateful concert. Though there is no evidence for this, perhaps the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, understood that blowing himself up in a concert where a young pop star was performing would unlikely to lead to Muslim casualties.
The recent BBC’s Biggest Weekend Music Festivals held simultaneously in four UK cities provide similar insights. Just as with the Manchester concert, Muslims at these enormously popular festivals, where music lovers from all over the country were in attendance, were conspicuous by their absence. Watching the BBC’s coverage of these festivals, I never saw any hijab-wearing women or bearded Muslim men at any of the four festivals; though there may well have been modern, secular-minded music fans from a Muslim background in attendance. There should be no recourse to the apologetic argument that the expense of attending such festivals acts as a disincentive given that students on loans were doubtless there in significant numbers – and indeed form a core demographic at music festivals generally. The truth is very clear: 3-day music festivals that are characterised by gender mixing with the explicit aim of enjoyment is a strict taboo for devout Muslims or, more precisely, is deemed to be haram (sinful). Also of significance is the fact that at the four venues, acts from a Muslim background were conspicuous by their absence, though the same is true for Asian acts generally.
Young Muslims in segregated neighbourhoods live in an extremely closed and controlled environment, such that pretty much the entire gamut of social and leisure activities of the mainstream society is well-nigh forbidden. This includes not just pop concerts and music festivals, but also pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants serving non-halal food, and beach holidays.
That said, Muslims along with other Asians have, since the late 1980s, organised their own festivals known as melas in cities such as Bradford and Birmingham. Remember that it was during the 1980s that Britain was deemed a multicultural society, so the start date for this phenomenon is not surprising; moreover, they have been supported by local authorities. They have invariably been sold as enabling diverse communities to come together and learn about other traditions and cultures – as if, after more than half a century of migrant settlement in Britain, there is still the need for such “learning”. In fact, this is diplomatic language for the fact that Asians have their own traditions and cultures, which, while others are welcome to join in, has the strong proviso that otherwise leave us alone, for we have little interest in learning from, let alone partaking in, your (indigenous white, and more recent black) culture. So, far from being an innocent celebration of cultural diversity, melas have helped foment separatist identities.
Smiling politicians at melas and other similar events have given the imprimatur – often backed up with resources – to what are, for all intents and purposes, separatist gatherings. As many parts of towns and cities have become ethnic minority enclaves, this actually makes political sense – it helps to cement a vote bank. In the meanwhile, another little remarked upon phenomenon has come to pass: in direct response to this separatism, there has arisen ‘white flight’. The indigenous population has certainly learned about the cultures, religions, and languages of the new settlers, and has, in alarming numbers, voted with its feet and headed for the suburbs or left their home towns and cities altogether.
Devoid of meaningful commonalities, the ineluctable outcome is the entrenchment of parallel lives and fissuring of identities. And, curiously enough, how can it be possible to celebrate cultural diversity when the indigenous population makes its exit from large sections of towns and cities? It seems that such a profound reality, one that is accelerating by the day, is beyond the comprehension of those who have long been the cheerleaders for diversity.
These stark facts of our society rarely appear on the radar of politicians, media commentators, and opinion-makers at large. The reality of our diverse, multicultural, multi-faith society is segregation in extremis, with few substantive commonalities, and this is especially true for Muslims. The irony is that music perhaps more than any other pass-time is a great unifier, especially when performed live at concerts and music festivals but sections of our citizenry are wilfully precluded in the enjoyment of this because of cultural and religious taboos. There is frankly little resolve on the part of policy and opinion-makers to even recognise this troubling reality, let alone do anything about it. Hence, the prospect of significant numbers of Muslims participating in future Biggest Weekend Music Festivals, or going to concerts by the likes of Ariana Grande, remains remote.
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at Sussex University and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010), Dangerous Liaisons: the Clash between Islamism and Zionism (2013), and Religion and Development in the Global South (2019)