Homophobia, sectarianism and church pressure stifle Mashrou’ Leila appearance

While the Mashrou’ Leila affair brings to the forefront the issue of public freedoms in Lebanon, it demonstrates the possibility of a cultural conversation and negotiation.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Musicians Haig Papazian (L), Carl Gerges (C) and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou’ Leila pose for a picture in New York. (AFP)
Will not perform this time. Musicians Haig Papazian (L), Carl Gerges (C) and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou’ Leila pose for a picture in New York. (AFP)

BEIRUT - While it appeased the Maronite Church, the cancellation of a concert by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, which was to perform August 9 at the Byblos International Festival, raised concerns about the state of freedoms in Lebanon, once considered the most liberal country in the region.

Human rights activists denounced the decision by the festival’s committee, which they said was forced to cancel the event following a defamation campaign incited by the church. It mobilised scores of its members, triggering a social media war between the band’s supporters and critics.

The festival committee issued a statement citing security considerations for cancelling the concert, saying it wanted to avoid “violence” and “bloodshed.”

“What happened sets a very dangerous precedent,” said Georges Azzi, executive director at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality. “It is also part of a series of attacks on freedom of expression in Lebanon that has been going on for several years now.”

“It is really disastrous the way used by the church to mobilise this amount of people around silly rumours such as the existence of secret plans to destroy Christianity,” said Azzi, who described the hate speech against Mashrou’ Leila as a “Daesh-style” campaign. “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

“There were death threats (against the band and concertgoers) and the church appeared to have no problem with that. I believe the ‘Daesh’ thought or way is not linked to a particular religion but it is a way of thinking that one can find in all religions,” Azzi added.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the cancellation, accusing Lebanese authorities of resorting to “abusive laws to stifle and censor activists, journalists and artists.”

“The government’s decision to take action against Mashrou’ Leila while ignoring serious threats against the band shows that it is using insult and incitement laws selectively to censor divergent opinions,” Lama Fakih, HRW’s acting Middle East director, said in a release.

“This incident demonstrates how criminal defamation, incitement and insult laws in Lebanon are exploited by powerful groups and how they fail to protect marginalised voices and those who have divergent opinions,” Fakih said. “Lebanon is joining the ranks of abusive governments in the region that trample on free speech rights, pushing out the talent and debate that have made this country what it is.”

Since it was formed in 2008, Mashrou’ Leila has been known for its criticism of various social, religious and political issues in Lebanon, as well as its support for the right to freedom of expression and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights. It gained worldwide acclaim for tackling oppression, corruption and homophobia in the Arab world.

The band has played in Lebanon multiple times, including at the Byblos Festival in 2010 and 2016. It sparked controversy in Egypt and was banned from performing in Jordan. Its songs are deemed by some individuals and religious groups in Lebanon as offensive to Christianity.

The Lebanese Constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law” but the Lebanese penal code also criminalises insulting religious rituals and denigrating or distorting religious and sacred symbols.

However, provisions of the laws are so vague they could be subject to abuse by authorities who may use them to silence dissent.

The controversy over Mashrou’ Leila’s concert started July 22 when a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecution calling on the government to prosecute the band for insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions.

The same day, the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos said the band’s songs “offend religious and human values and insult Christian beliefs” and demanded that the Byblos Festival cancel the performance.

Mashrou’ Leila issued a statement saying it “respected all religions and their symbols” and was saddened by “the distortion of the lyrics of some of our songs.”

One of the band’s albums in question is called “Djin.” The lyrics include the line: “I baptised my liver in gin, in the name of the Father and the Son.”

Critics relate the outburst to a photo shared online by the band’s openly gay lead singer Hamed Sinno that depicts a painting of the Virgin Mary with her head replaced with that of pop star Madonna. Sinno is a Muslim, giving certain Christian political figures and groups an opportunity to appeal to a sense of communal victimhood.

While the Mashrou’ Leila affair brings to the forefront the issue of public freedoms in Lebanon, it demonstrates the possibility of a cultural conversation and negotiation. The strong reaction by many Lebanese against censorship and in defence of the band has shown that, even if it could be shrinking, a space for free expression exists in the country.

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