A popular Mideast rock band known for its rousing music and lyrics challenging norms in the conservative Arab world is once again at the center of a heated debate about freedom of expression — this time over a planned concert in its hometown in Lebanon. Church leaders and conservative politicians set off a storm of indignation on social media this week when they demanded that a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, scheduled to take place in the coastal city of Byblos on Aug. 9, be canceled, saying the group’s songs are an insult to Christianity.
The indie rock band, whose lead singer and song writer Hamed Sinno is openly gay, has been a champion of LGBT rights in the Arab world and regularly sings against controversial subjects such as sectarianism, corruption and other social problems. The band has previously been banned from performing in Jordan and Egypt, but censorship demands threatening its concert in the more liberal Lebanon — where it has performed on numerous occasions — are new.
“After looking at the goals of Mashrou’ Leila and the content of the songs it performs which infringe on religious and humanitarian values … we call on authorities to suspend their performance on the land of holiness, civilization and history,” a statement issued by the Christian Maronite Archdiocese of Byblos said.
On Facebook, a group calling itself the “Soldiers of God” started a campaign against the concert, posting warnings suggesting it would take to the streets to prevent the event from taking place. Others weighed in, starting a hashtag that called for stopping the performance. Taken aback, the group hit back on Monday (July 22), saying it has been surprised by the “defamatory campaign.”
“It’s very sad that some of the lyrics from our songs have been cherry picked, taken out of context and twisted into a meaning very far from what the songs are actually about,” a statement issued by the band said. The rhetoric by religious and conservative figures spurred a response from activists, rights groups and outraged Lebanese, angry over what they see as their country’s mounting suppression of freedom of expression.
“This is so ridiculous. The whole world seems to be regressing into illiberalism,” wrote renowned Lebanese-American writer and novelist Rabih Alameddine, who performed with the band at The Met Breuer in New York earlier this month. “Mashrou’ Leila is one of the greatest things to happen to the Middle East.” The band, whose name translates as “Night Project,” was founded 10 years ago by a group of architecture students at the American University of Beirut whose songs challenged stereotypes through their music and lyrics.
Riding on the wave Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East, the band was embraced by Arab youth who see its music as part of a cultural and social revolution. The band members have gone on to gain worldwide acclaim, performing in front of sold-out crowds in the United States, Berlin, London and Paris.
Their August concert in Byblos would be their third show at the Mediterranean venue north of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. It was not clear what the organizers plan to do in the face of the controversy; they were not taking any calls on Wednesday. Amnesty International issued a statement Tuesday calling on the Lebanese government to ensure the band is protected and the concert goes ahead.
“It is unconscionable that there continue to be such calls emanating from institutions that are meant to serve as role models to their constituencies, and can and should be upholding the right to freedom of expression,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s head of research for the Middle East. It was not clear what specifically triggered the current outburst. Some critics cited a photo shared online by Sinno that depicts a painting of the Virgin Mary with her head replaced by the pop star Madonna.
The debate has been trending on Twitter for days. In a country beset by political, economic and financial troubles, many lamented the focus on the arts and censorship.
“What’s wrong? Why do you insist on taking us back to the middle ages? Is it not enough that we are collectively sliding backward without any breaks? Is it not enough the despair we live in, on all levels?” Joelle Boutros, an activist, posted on Facebook. Columnist Diana Skaini, writing in the daily An-Nahar, said the debate goes beyond Mashrou’ Leila, to the heart of Lebanon and its message as a country.
“Either we consecrate bans and populism and say goodbye to what remains of this moderate spot, or we confront this tyrannical wave that goes against our pluralistic and diverse country,” she said.