A lurking threat to Western classical music

Is Western classical music under threat? The genre known as classical, serious, or art music has certainly suffered from being labeled elitist and inaccessible.

Discussions about challenges to art music posed by government funding cuts and the allure of social media would become irrelevant if a sworn enemy of all music gains ascendancy. The threat has emerged from political Islam, a radical ideology pushing to become mainstream.

Radicalized preachers such as British teacher Ibrahim Hewitt believe music is immoral and un-Islamic. The hardline Islamist established a religious primary school, where music and dancing are forbidden. In Leicester, an Islamic school posted a sign warning: "Music sows hypocrisy in the heart like water causes seeds to grow in soil."

Thousands of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from music lessons in British schools because they believe learning to play an instrument is anti-Islamic. Most of those parents had no previous knowledge of a religious prohibition on music, and may have been persuaded by extremist imams from Pakistan. In contrast, the mystical Islamic Sufis of Pakistan and India belong to a religious denomination characterized by music.

In 2011, poster campaigns in the London boroughs of Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham announced sharia-controlled zones where Islamic rules would be enforced. The bright yellow flyers featured stop signs with images and titles banning alcohol, gambling, porn, prostitution, drugs and smoking. The largest sign was captioned "No Music or Concerts".

A ban on music is a core tenet of violent Islamist groups. When Islamic State took control of Raqqa in northeast Syria, they first imposed full-face veiling on women and then banned music. For the supposed crime of listening to pop music, Islamic State beheaded a 15 year-old boy in Mosul, the jihadis' Iraqi capital.

Paradoxically, violent Islamists have their own music in the form of nasheeds, or religious chanting a cappella by men. Although the genre predates them, Sunni insurgent groups developed battle and martyr chants, while Shia militias such as Hezbollah added strings and drums. The rousing choruses became symbols of jihadi culture and online recruitment propaganda.

In 2012, jihadist threats to music assumed prominence in northern Mali, where a civil war led to a takeover by Islamist forces that had backed the rebels. The region is famous for its troubadours known as griots, who transmit an oral heritage of history and social commentary in languid song. Over the centuries, they entertained at weddings, births and funerals, singing traditional songs and playing instruments such as the stringed ngoni and "talking drum".

Before they were routed by the French, the jihadists banned Western music, beat people for listening to all music and destroyed instruments and archives of cassettes. As traditional music was considered intrinsic to the wellbeing of the people, silencing the griots was a social tragedy.

Other countries have suffered music bans thanks to armed jihadis. Afghanistan had a rich tradition containing Persian, Arab, Indian, Pashtun and Tajik influences. Music was central to family events. When the Taliban seized control in 1996, cassettes were prohibited, enforced by the usual beatings by the "morality" police. Only religious chants or panegyrics to fallen militants were permitted.

Somali writer Bashir Goth says mullahs are pursuing a jihad against his nation's traditional music, justifying their views with Salafi and Wahhabi quotes, even though no Islamic texts expressly prohibit music. Their campaign against Somali music has convinced many of the country's musicians and broadcasters that music is sinful and forbidden.

Al-Shabab, the dominant Islamist militia in Somalia, has banned school bells in the town of Jowhar, claiming they clashed with Islam. Fellow travellers on the jihadi road, Hizbul Islam, intimidated Mogadishu radio broadcasters who defiantly replaced songs with the sounds of horses, roosters and guns.

If Islamist extremists were free to extend their influence and control in the West, they would surely attempt the demise of Western music, already evident in London borough poster campaigns.

The destruction would include art music, and with it, one of the jewels in the crown of Western civilization.

Ida Lichter is the author of The Secret Magic of Music: Conversations With Musical Masters

A version of this post was originally featured in The Australian.