When Egypt and Jordan banned the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila a few years ago because of its openly gay frontman and its progressive lyrics addressing social and sexual taboos, many Lebanese declared that this would never happen in their country.
A religiously diverse nation, Lebanon has long been a haven for artists and writers from the region, even more so as oppressive regimes continue to clamp down on freedom of expression in the wake of the Arab uprisings.
But last week, after a 10-day campaign by Christian activists against Mashrou’ Leila, including blasphemy accusations, online bullying and death threats against its four members, the Byblos International Festival, a major local music event, scrapped a planned concert by the band. Festival organizers said the decision was to “prevent bloodshed and maintain peace and stability.”
Locally, the announcement was greeted with outrage and disbelief. Mashrou’ Leila has played many times at various venues in Lebanon and appeared twice at the seaside Byblos festival. Yet the controversy is about much more than just one country, a local band and a canceled concert — it is evidence of the renewed power of intolerance and fundamentalism in the region and beyond.
The denunciation started when some in the Christian community suddenly voiced alarm at a four-year-old Facebook post by the band’s lead singer of an article, written by an American L.G.B.T.Q. activist, that featured an image of the singer Madonna as the Virgin Mary. Some of the group’s lyrics about drowning “my liver in gin, in the name of the father and the son” were then declared blasphemous by Christian activists and clerics— though the songs had previously been performed at the festival. There were threats to cancel the show by force. Christian politicians and clerics weighed in to say the show had to be canceled. The state did little to contain the fury, and the security services interrogated the band members instead of going after those who were inciting the violence. The band faced no criminal charges and yet, they were silenced.
The lyrics of the band’s song “For the Nation” provide a perfect summary of recent events: “When you dare ask a question about the deteriorating situation/ They silence you with slogans about all the conspiracies/ … They drive you to despair, so you sell your freedoms to save the nation.”
For some time, many Lebanese have chosen to ignore the small but growing instances of censorship, much of which take place at the behest of religious authorities. The concert cancellation has jolted them out of their complacency about the status of their country as an oasis of freedom. As Carl Gerges, the band’s drummer, told me, the episode exposed “a reality we didn’t want to accept about Lebanon.” (Full disclosure: I am friends with the band members and a fan of their music.) Two band members who currently live in the United States canceled their trip to Lebanon, while the other two left because of death threats.
In response to the blasphemy accusations, Mashrou’ Leila has said, “Our respect for others’ beliefs is as firm as our respect for the right to be different.”
The band’s celebration of difference is what has made it so popular in the Arab world and the West. Its exceptional, experimental music has resonated with non-Arabic speakers, and it has performed at sold-out venues from the Barbican in London to Lincoln Hall in Chicago. They also represent an easygoing diversity that still defines Lebanon. The frontman, Hamed Sinno, who is often compared to Freddie Mercury, is Muslim; two other members are Christian, including one Armenian; and the fourth is a Druze. Their legions of fans look to them because they challenge the status quo and their lyrics are an expression of the collective angst and questioning by hundreds of thousands of young Arabs — about sexuality, gender equality and state oppression.
While accusations of blasphemy have become common among Muslims since Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, those from Christians in the region are rare. Lebanon’s Christians, once a small majority that held most levers of power in the country, are now a shrinking minority that increasingly feels under siege. Their answer is seemingly to scream as loudly about their religion as do their fellow Muslim countrymen.
While the reaction of the detractors in the Christian community resembles nothing so much as their contribution to a regional blasphemy competition, it also reflects a worldwide trend: the rise of hate speech, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, which tracks closely with the discourse of the alt-right in Europe and the United States. Lebanon’s Christian foreign minister recently suggested that the Lebanese have exceptional genes.
But the push to reclaim the country’s freedom is underway. On Monday, the Dutch band Within Temptation, which was also scheduled to perform at Byblos, pulled out because of security concerns and “in support of tolerance, freedom of speech and expression.” A petition calling on the government and civil society to defend freedom of expression has been signed by more than 200 high-profile Lebanese personalities from all confessions; a coalition of nongovernmental organizations is filing a lawsuit against those who called for the violence; and a concert by a variety of Lebanese artists will be held on Aug. 9, the date planned for the original Mashrou’ Leila concert, along with an invitation to play the band’s music in all bars, restaurants, cars and homes across the country. “The music is louder” states the call to action circulating on social media.
But will the music be louder than hate? The question resonates well beyond Lebanon’s borders. But it is undoubtedly an inflection point for the Mediterranean nation. Progressive forces need to be as organized and sustained in their response because the detractors, feeling victorious, will find new targets to censor. If they win again, the loss will be great for the Christian community, the country and even the region as the characteristics that set Lebanon apart from neighboring dictatorships are erased in the competition for righteousness.
Kim Ghattas is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion and Collective Memory in the Middle East.