Monday’s terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, has been dubbed an attack on many things, including freedom of expression.
Pakistani American writer Rafia Zakaria says it was also an attack on culture.
“Culture, music and art are the means by which we engage in this basic human desire to express ourselves and to enjoy ourselves,” Zakaria said. “Mixing that up with the narrative of terrorism” can stir fear and paranoia, preventing individuals from enjoying cultural production in a variety of forms, and deterring them from participating in cultural events including concerts.
Whether Monday’s concertgoers — some of whom were young enough to be attending their first concert ever — decide to attend future events may seem trivial at a time of such tragedy. But Zakaria says that response, in combination with increased security in the name of public safety, could have a devastating effect on cultural production. She says she’s seen this play out in countries where terrorist attacks are much more frequent.
“From Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to the Middle East [there’s been] an onslaught [of cultural events]. No concerts, no literary festivals, no fun, no laughter, no coming out in cafes. And now it's reached the Western world. And ... I see this with immense amounts of heartbreak.”
"Attacking culture ... is very strategically savvy,” Zakaria said. Beyond instilling fear among victims and their communities, ISIS and similar groups are sending a very calculated message that pits “the Western world against the Muslim world," she added.
“The frame in which they are trying to present [these attacks] is: ‘Look at these Westerners, they're so immersed in revelry and kind of a hedonistic fun. And then we are coming into the middle of that and avenging their lack of empathy for the rest of the world,’” Zakaria said.
The response to these terrorist incidents can deepen the divide, and lead to what she calls a "perverse sense of competitive victimhood."
“People in the Muslim world [might] look at something like this and say, ‘Well, we've lost thousands of people. So, you know, everybody is sort of entrenched on their side, and everybody's hurting.” Zakaria said. “But the problem, of course, is that, you know, we're not able to cross those borders and empathize with each other, which is of course, exactly what ISIS wants.”