The Day the Music Died

One day, out of curiosity, I Googled “symphony orchestras in the Muslim world.” The results were rather dismal. One site—“About Symphony Orchestras in the Arab World”—contained the following (badly translated) information:

  • Symphony of Saudi Arabia: “Non-existent…”
  • The Orchestra of Emirate of Qatar: “This orchestra has no clear identity…100% of foreign elements” [i.e., none of the Qatari orchestra’s musicians are from Qatar].
  • The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra: “Its library was looted multiple times [in 2003]… And its members suffered of systematic liquidate [sic] that led to the emigration of more than 30 Iraqis musicians to the European capitals.”
  • Palestinian National Symphony Orchestra: “Headquarters: does not exist … not established in the full sense of the musical entity yet.”
  • Symphony Orchestra of Kuwait: “No information about the activities of the orchestra…”

The story is not uniformly bad. For instance, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, which is described as the best in the Arab world, has “attracted many international soloists such as Aram Khachaturian…” But by and large, one can safely say that symphony music is not thriving in the Sunni Muslim world.

How about the Shia variety of Islam? Tehran is the capital of Shia Islam, and it does have a decent symphony, but one with a rocky recent history. The symphony was disbanded under the rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then reinstated under President Rouhani, but still subject to sudden government cancellations. Hardliners are particularly concerned about women singing solo.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Islam’s ambivalent attitude toward music goes all the way back to Muhammad who said “Allah, mighty and majestic … commanded me to do away with musical instruments, flutes, strings, crucifixes, and the affair of the pre-Islamic era of ignorance. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will pour molten lead into the ears of whoever sits listening to a songstress” (Umdat al-Salik r40.0). In Don McLean’s American Pie, Buddy Holly’s untimely death marks “the day the music died,” but the day the music died for Islam was the day that Muhammad started receiving revelations from above.

It’s not just music. With the exception of calligraphy and architecture, Islam has been rather unfriendly to the arts in general. In another hadith, Muhammad is quoted as saying “Every maker of pictures will go to the fire, where a being will set upon him to torment him in hell for each picture he made” (Umdat al-Salik w50.1). It’s not quite clear in Islamic law whether this applies to all representational painting or only to portrayals of animate life. But, if you’re a Muslim of artistic inclination, it might be better to stick to geometric patterns, just to be on the safe side.

As Islamic beliefs and culture spread into the West, it’s likely that this antipathy to the arts will spread with it. The irony is that if the music dies in the West, the Western arts community will bear some of the responsibility.

How so? Well, for a long time, artists and musicians, and their patrons have been in sympathy with the idea that multiculturalism and diversity are unreservedly good things. Their argument is that cultural diversity leads to cultural enrichment and is therefore good for the arts.

At first glance, the argument seems to make sense. For example, some of Picasso’s work is said to have been inspired by African tribal masks, Dvorak’s New World Symphony made use of a Negro spiritual, and Debussy incorporated elements of American ragtime and Javanese gamelan music into his pieces. One could cite numerous other examples of cultural borrowings in great works of art and music.

But diversity has a downside which is less often noted. Increased emphasis on diversity in America has not led, as one might expect, to a greater diversity of opinions, but to greater conformity. For example, almost all college campuses now have diversity codes and diversity offices, but the effect of these diversity programs has been to limit thoughts and expressions to those that are officially sanctioned. As anyone who has spent much time on a college campus knows, there is far more freedom of speech in a taxicab or a hair salon than in the average college classroom.

When pursued to its logical conclusion, multiculturalism leads to monoculturalism, and eventually to a monochrome society. That’s because without a common culture to unite them, multicultures break down into competing subcultures. When this happens, the ruling authorities step in and make laws outlawing “hate” and “insensitivity” in the hope that everyone can be forced to respect everyone else.

The trouble is, there’s no way to apply these rules evenhandedly and a double standard quickly develops. In a society where offending others is considered the worst crime, those who are most easily offended will come out on top. But those who are most easily offended are often those with the least tolerance for others.

Enter Islam and the Islamist penchant for seeing “Islamophobia” everywhere. Because Islam is more exotic than most diversities, it has a special claim on those who want to establish their tolerance for diversity. Thus, Muslim claims of being offended will usually be taken at face value, rather than as a strategy to advance Islamic culture at the expense of other cultures.

The trouble is, there is very little that Islamic culture finds inoffensive. As soon as one offensive element is removed, another takes its place. If the offense isn’t removed quickly enough, a lawsuit soon follows. Take the case of the Canadian landlord who was fined $12,000 because he failed to remove his shoes when showing the bedroom where a Muslim couple said their prayers. It didn’t matter that the landlord was from Nigeria. Some diversities are more equal than other diversities. And Islamic laws and customs are a minefield of potential offenses that can blow up in the faces of unwary Westerners—or transplanted Nigerians.

For Western citizens, diversity for diversity’s sake is a first principle. But what if one of the diversities you open your door to doesn’t believe in diversity? What if it believes instead that other cultures must be forced to do things its way? What is happening in the West is that the least tolerant culture is leveraging the cult of diversity to its own advantage.

Which brings us back to the arts. Among the things that Islam finds offensive are paintings, statues, mosaics, music, and song. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the razing of the Roman temples and arches in Palmyra are just the most recent in a long line of vandalism that stretches back to Muhammad. According to culture critic Hugh Fitzgerald, “the greatest destruction of art in the history of the world is that wrought by Muslims on the art (architecture, artifacts), sacred and profane, of non-Muslim civilizations.”

Thanks to resurgence of militant Islam we seem to have entered a new era of iconoclasm. And it’s not just the arts that are being attacked, but also the people who patronize them. There have been a number of terror attacks against tourists at the ancient Egyptian Karnak Temple near Luxor. In 2015, gunmen killed 19 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. In 2002, 40 to 50 armed Chechen Islamists took 850 hostages during a musical theatre production at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. The three-day siege ended with the death of 130 hostages including 17 members of the cast and one-third of the orchestra. More recently, we’ve seen the jihad attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris which resulted in the death of 130 people, many of whom were also mutilated, and the jihad attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England which left 22 dead.

For all their antipathy to the arts, jihadists have an almost Hitchcockian sense of dramatic locations: the Temple of Karnak, the Bardo Museum, the Dubrovka Theatre, the Bataclan Theatre, the World Trade Center. They haven’t gotten around yet to Mt. Rushmore and the Albert Hall, but it’s quite likely that both are already on some jihadis to-do list. Fortunately, the authorities have discerned the pattern, and have begun to beef up security around museums and monuments. Nowadays, if you want to visit the Louvre or the Rijksmuseuem, you have to tiptoe around police and soldiers carrying automatic weapons. Many artists like to advertise their work as transgressive and even dangerous. That’s becoming literally true, though presumably not in the ways that the artists intended. When you go to a concert or a museum these days, there is indeed a heightened element of danger.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that armed jihadists are the only danger to the arts and music. The other danger comes from Islamic culture itself and from the non-violent spread of that culture into Western societies. The trend has been referred to as “Islamization” and also as “stealth jihad.” For my own part, I prefer the term “cultural jihad” because at this point the advance is far from stealthy. The reason that citizens of the West don’t see the cultural takeover in progress is that they don’t want to see it. And they don’t want to see it because they don’t know what to do about it. Some of those who do see what’s happening think the trend toward Islamic dominance is unstoppable. Here’s economist Peter Smith in Quadrant:

Tolerant societies in these politically correct times have no feasible way of countering intolerance when it is practiced and preached by a minority religion ready to claim victimhood at the drop of a hat. I entertained the thought that it could, but it can’t be done.

Whether or not the trend is irreversible remains to be seen, but the trend has not been toward assimilation (as so many had hoped), but toward cultural conquest. And as Islamization continues, it will have a profound effect on the arts. Because where Islamic beliefs and laws advance, the arts retreat.

It’s not just a matter of hostility to the arts, but indifference to them. Although some Muslim immigrants to Europe will acquire a taste for Chopin and Renoir, most will ignore the symphony halls and the art museums altogether. As the population continues to shift in the favor of Islam, those museums that manage to stay open will have to emphasize non-representational Islamic art and put the Renoirs in cold storage. As for the concert halls, many will die a slow death. Mark Steyn puts it this way:

When the demography changes, there will be no concert halls. Artists who take a multicultural view should be aware of this. Count the number of covered women in London’s West End. In Birmingham, where I went to high school, you have a provincial symphony orchestra in a Muslim city—I’m not sure it will survive. All art, all popular culture is endangered by Islam, because there’s no room for it.

Although Birmingham won’t be a Muslim majority city for another twenty years or so, Steyn is right about the general trend. And he’s right about the unawareness of “artists who take a multicultural view.” Those in the arts community who blindly celebrate diversity constitute, in effect, a fifth column that facilitates the invasion of Western society by an anti-arts culture.

One has to wonder if they really love the arts or if they are more in love with the idea of being thought exceedingly tolerant and open-minded. People who love something are usually willing to fight to defend it. But there’s scant evidence that the arts community will fight to preserve the culture they have inherited.

There are exceptions, of course. The aforementioned Mark Steyn is one of them. By profession, Steyn is a music critic who specializes in writing about composers of popular music such as Cole Porter, Jule Styne, and Dorothy Fields. Yet shortly after 9/11 Steyn branched out to political and cultural criticism with a particular emphasis on criticism of Islam and the lackluster Western response to its inroads. Why the foray into politics? As Steyn puts it, “The point of politics is to free up time for what really matters”—which in his case is music.

Another counter–jihadist who would rather be doing something else is Ned May. He is the director of Gates of Vienna, a website devoted to discussing the dangers of Islamization, both in America and Europe. Writing under the pen name Baron Bodissey, May produces a daily supply of knowledgeable and well-crafted columns. Yet his real passions are landscape painting and music. In a piece about Bach’s choral prelude, “O Lamn Gottes unschuldig,” he writes “[Bach’s music] is one of the principal motives behind my choice to continue the struggle against the Great Jihad. The music of J.S. Bach represents the apotheosis of the human spirit, and will remain such even as the civilization that created it turns to dust.”

He continues: “There is no ideology in this [the music]… But ideology may well destroy it. Just as there are no longer any Buddhas at Bamiyan … there may come a day when all the pipes lay strewn across the paving stones of a shattered building, with no more fingers to race across the keyboards nor feet to tap the pedals. That is one of the main reasons why I do what I do: so that this shall not pass from the face of the earth.”

As they are willing to fight to preserve the music they love, Steyn and May deserve to be thought of as genuine music lovers. I’m not so sure that the same can be said for those artists who rush to defend every diversity under the sun, but have little regard for the culture that produced Bach, Beethoven, and Cole Porter. Are they in love with art or are they more in love with a currently fashionable but ultimately destructive ideology about cultural diversity—one that will spell the death of art and music?

Editor’s note: Pictured above are Tehran Symphony Orchestra musicians rehearsing in 2010, before the orchestra was disbanded by the government in 2012. (Photo credit: Vahid Salemi / AP.)


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...