A poster for Mashrou’ Leila’s appearance at the Byblos festival (Mashrou’ Leila’s Facebook Page)

Rock Band under Attack in Lebanon

Mashrou Leila’s members accused of insulting religion, inciting sectarianism, promoting homosexuality 

Authorities in Lebanon are investigating a complaint of contempt of religions against the rock-music band Mashrou’ Leila, over its planned participation in the Byblos International Festival next month.

Social media erupted with reaction, with some calling for the band to be barred from the festival, claiming that its songs “insult the Christian religion” and “encourage homosexuality.” Others have voiced support for the band and cited Lebanon’s policy of freedom of artistic expression.

Formed in 2008 at the American University of Beirut, Mashrou’ Leila is known for taking outspoken positions on social, religious and political issues in Lebanon and in Arab society in general, as well as for its support for the right of freedom of expression and LGBT rights. Its songs tackle such matters as homophobia, patriarchy and corruption.

On its Facebook page, band members noted that they performed in 2010 at the Byblos Festival without any objections, said they were being “subjected to a fabricated campaign that violates freedom of expression,” and confirmed their respect for “all religions.”

Rabe Damaj, a Lebanese writer and journalist, told The Media Line that artists sometimes use controversial means to attract attention.

“On more than one occasion and in more than one country, Mashrou’ Laila has provoked” people by its behavior,” he said.

Damaj strongly criticized the campaigns against the band on social media.

“I’m against destructive criticism,” whether there is “a reason or not,” Damaj said, adding that Mashrou’ Laila “has a fan base that likes their kind of music.”

While saying the band should “respect the values of Lebanese society and consider people’s personal beliefs and religion,” and criticizing those who “provoke society to attract attention,” he said there needs to be a “balance between exercising freedom and respecting society.”

The band has faced similar situations elsewhere.

In June 2017, Jordanian authorities prevented Mashrou’ Leila from holding a concert in Amman, saying its music contained words that “provoke public sentiment.” In September of that year, the Association of Musical Professions in Egypt banned it after a concert in which some in the audience raised gay flags.

Last week in Lebanon, attorney Christine Nakhoul filed a complaint calling on the government to prosecute the band for insulting religion, inciting sectarianism and “spreading and promoting homosexuality.”

In addition, leaders from the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos issued a statement criticizing Mashrou’ Leila, saying its songs were “offensive to religious and humanitarian values and Christian beliefs,” adding that the “goals and lyrical content of the band… largely contravene religious and human values and contain attacks on Christian rituals.”

The Church called for organizers of the Byblos Festival, which is the biggest held in Lebanon, attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world, to cancel the event due to Mashrou’ Leila’s scheduled performance.

This resulted in an online debate between fans of the band and those agreeing with the position of the Church, with critics saying Mashrou’ Leila had mocked a melody of “Christian hymns.” They noted that the band’s founder, Hamed Snow, posted a portrait of the Virgin Mary covered over with the face of the American singer Madonna. They also said that Snow had declared his “homosexuality” on television.

One Lebanese woman tweeted about Snow: “Dear atheist, you do not believe in the existence of God, you are free and no one is preaching you, but your freedom stops at the freedom of others. Respecting the faith of others is imposed upon you! #Stop_Mashrou’_Leila.”

A supporter of the band tweeted: “Supporting#mashrouleilain the face of stupidity and ignorance. I stand with art #Mashrou’_Leila.”

In an interview with The Media Line, Nada Nassif, social media director at a marketing company, criticized limiting freedom of expression in Lebanon.

“The country brags about its freedom of speech but can’t tolerate the lyrics of a song,” she said. She added that “freedom can’t be limited, or otherwise it isn’t freedom. What is happening is extremely random and violates freedom of speech.”

She told The Media Line that “Mashrou’ Leila members shouldn’t accept such accusations and should have made bolder steps despite the hostility against them.”

Amnesty International called on Lebanese authorities to protect Mashrou’ Leila from “any hate campaign and ensure that the band is able to perform in safety and security.”

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