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A Ban a Day Keeps the Progress Away On Mashrou’ Leila and Religious Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa
September 9, 2019
Author: Mouna Massaoudi

The cancellation of Mashrou’ Leila’s performance at the Byblos International Festival on August 9 pleased many and shocked many, but it most importantly unveiled a long-standing struggle in the MENA region. This ban is not the first of its kind and Mashrou’ Leila is not the first target of conservative pressure; the region has a long record of the religious right denouncing, censoring and silencing art performances.

Starting west in Morocco where in 2015 Jennifer Lopez performed and spurred outrage in Mawazine Festival. Her attire and choreography were the target of insults and accusations from concertgoers as well as Moroccans who watched the live broadcast on national television. The Minister of Communication, Moustapha El Khalfi denounced the performance as “unacceptable,” claiming that it went against Moroccan values and should not be aired on TV for families to see. The head of government and the Islamist ruling Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Abdelillah Benkirane, urged the High Authority of Audiovisual Communication to sanction the TV channel. PJD’s youth branch also staged protests in the capital Rabat in opposition to the performance, claiming that the performer provoked them by attacking the morals of Moroccans. Lopez was also subject to a lawsuit; the plaintiff and his lawyer argued that the performer “danced and sang songs of an undeniable baseness and bad taste, with gestures and suggestive attitudes that were detrimental to modesty and morality.” Jennifer Lopez had already left the country when this legal action was initiated, but these events speak volumes of the pressure that the cultural and artistic spheres face of the country.

In the same year, Nabil Ayouch’s movie Much Loved (زين لي فيك in Arabic) was banned before it had even premiered in the country on the grounds that it damaged the image of Morocco and of Moroccan women worldwide. The film tackled the story of four prostitutes in Marrakech and was met with a “hate campaign” in the words of Loubna Abidar, the lead actress. The Ministry of Communication banned the streaming of the movie before Ayouch had applied for a license to broadcast the film. Moustapha El Khalfi, the Minister of Communication, explained that the decision was made following the screening of the movie at the Festival de Cannes. The festival’s Facebook page published four short promotional excerpts of the movie and it is those excerpts that led to nationwide outrage against the producer and the cast. Abidar received insults and death threats but it was after an attack that she decided to seek exile in France. She recounts the events in a Le Monde article where she explains that she lived in hiding and only left her home covered in a burqa in fear of being recognized. One day, she left the house uncovered and three men recognized her, forced her into their car and battered her. Disfigured, she was mocked and dismissed by police officers and then mocked again by medical professionals before receiving treatment. Likewise, Ayouch, whose mother is Jewish, also received death threats and was subject to antisemitic comments by conspiracists who claimed that since his movie benefitted from no public funds, it had to be financed by Zionists.

In Tunisia, it is noteworthy to mention Nadia El Fani’s experience. The filmmaker was under fire for a documentary about the question of secularism in her country. First entitled Ni Allah Ni Maître, then changed to Laïcité, Inch’allah! due to backlash, the documentary coincided with the 2010-2011 Jasmine Revolution and uncovered the clashes between seculars and Islamists in a transitioning Tunisian society and polity. El Fani recalls in an interview with L’Express how she received death threats following the first streaming of her film as well as how Islamists protested the second streaming in Tunis. “They attacked the movie theater, beat up the director and threatened to slaughter my father while explaining to the attendees that if the movie was streamed, there will be blood.” She also explained that there were around 50 protesters before the police intervened. Six lawsuits followed. She was accused by three lawyers of “attack on the person of God, incitement to hatred of religion, undermining a religious precept, undermining good morals and indecent assault.” It is only six years later, in 2017, that the charges were dropped by the Prosecutor of the Republic.

Similar to El Fani in timing is Egypt’s Bassem Youssef who kicked off his career in comedy by uploading sketches to YouTube shortly following the fall of then President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He eventually became the host of the show Al Barnameg, of which the political satire was constantly denounced as provocation to the new President Mohammad Morsi and his Islamist allies. Accused of insulting Islam and causing public unrest, he faced investigations, recurrent intimidation, and arrest, which led to his decision to cancel the show in order to not compromise the kind of content it produced. He explained the decision in a press conference saying that “the present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program.” He later tried to revive the show after President Abdul Fattah Sisi took over, but the show as well as the broadcasting channels were still the target of increasing pressure by the new government. The show was eventually cancelled and Youssef went on a self-imposed exile in 2014, following his lawyers’ advice. Since, he has been living in the United States.

Mashrou’ Leila also experienced Egypt’s censorship. In 2017, the Egyptian Syndicate of Musical Professions banned the Lebanese band following their concert in Cairo, where seven concert-goers were arrested for raising rainbow flags. Earlier that year, Jordan which had barred the band from performing, reversed the decision then banned them again, claiming that the ban would prevent “the implementation of certain agendas that may lead to internal disagreements” in the Kingdom. Two years later, it is in their native country, Lebanon, that Mashrou’ Leila were banned from performing.

These events may vary in scale, in the type of expression suppressed, and in the execution methods, but there are two things they have in common. First, they are an attack on freedom of thought, conscience and expression, and second, they are always faced with resistance. In fact, in all these cases, there was wide support for the bans, and there was also some form of counteraction, from online campaigns and support messages by fans, activists and supporters to the most recent “Music Is Louder” concert in support of Mashrou’ Leila.

The difficulty remains in accurately understanding the average citizens’ standing on such matters. Press content and social media quarrels around these issues are usually characterized by stark polarization. Die-hard supporters of either positions are often the only voices loud enough to be heard, while the centrists and moderates avoid engaging in such disputes, even if they are the largest group. With that in mind, I launched an online survey to hear MENA people’s opinions on the cancellation of Mashrou’ Leila’s concert; not expecting to know which camp outnumbers the other but hoping to tighten my grasp of views that different people hold.

The survey gathered answers as follows: documenting the demographic (age, religion and nationality), and asking if the respondents were familiar with Mashrou’ Leila, as well as their recent concert cancellation. Afterwards, it presented lyrics of the songs Asnaam and Djin, which contain biblical and religious references, evaluated for offense on a scale of 1 to 5; 1 being “not offensive at all” and 5 being “extremely offensive,” before finally asking respondents if they supported the cancellation or not. Due to time and mobility constraints, I opted for an online survey in Arabic and English.

In the analysis of the gathered data, the last question was the axis of comparison. The focus on this question therefore put our respondents in two groups, supporters and opponents of the cancellation. Although the latter group was larger in number, it is to be taken with a grain of salt since the sampling method for the survey was of convenience. Nevertheless, the opposing category encompassed people from all age groups (from 18 to 55 and over), as well as a variety of nationalities (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and one from Iran). It also varied vastly in terms of the respondents’ familiarity with the band and the cancellation, and even on the perceived offense levels. Comments of the opposers of the cancellation mainly expressed the importance of freedom of expression and their disappointment towards the cancellation happening in Lebanon; one comment described it as a spread of “obscurantism.”

The second category – the supporters of the ban – was diverse as well, but much younger and less familiar with the event than the previous category. Moreover, less than half of them found the lyrics offensive, and the majority commented that either they did not like the band and their music, or referred to homosexuality and “lack of morals” as a reason for their position. One comment reads “I did not find the lyrics offensive from my Muslim perspective. I think a Christian would be offended, more so if he/she is deeply religious.”

It would be naive to try to associate any demographic group to a specific position: older and younger respondents had varying opinions, the nationalities varied on both camps, and the religious affiliation or lack thereof did not indicate a trend either. Two responses present this entanglement lucidly: a young non-religious Saudi thought the lyrics were extremely offensive and supported the ban, while a middle-aged Christian Lebanese did not find the lyrics were offensive and opposed the cancellation. For this reason, we find that supporting the ban had little to do with the songs and more to do with the respondents. In other words, the lyrics may or may not be offensive, but they are not the main factor for this kind of opposition. Granted, the survey did not attract the largest and most representative crowd, and this means that there are people who do support the ban because they consider the songs an attack to their faith. The survey responses nonetheless highlighted and pushed towards the conclusion that people who are conservative, regardless of faith, age, and nationality, are more likely to support a ban of artistic performances, even if they had no personal stakes in the matter, solely based on the conservative belief that there, in fact, is something such as too much freedom.

As previously mentioned, the respondents who supported the cancellation were largely unfamiliar with Mashrou’ Leila and some did not even find the lyrics offensive. Meanwhile, the band’s fan base consists of a progressive demographic, which remains a minority in the MENA. To put things into perspective, Mashrou’ Leila’s Facebook page counts 521 thousand followers. In contrast, a singer like Swedish-Lebanese Maher Zain has a Facebook following of 25 million fans, and Islamic TV preacher Mustafa Hosny has 33 million followers. This is to say there are far more people on the conservative team. In these instances, arguments fail and keywords dominate. Whether it is “prostitution,” “secularism” or “homosexuality,” all it takes is an anti-religious connotation for such conservative groups and their followers to be defensive and to reproach freedom of expression.

As long as the keywords can be classified within a dichotomy of good and bad, halal and haram, they will pass on reading the lyrics or watching the documentary. This dichotomy is enforced by religious figures and enabled by either the support or nonchalance of authorities, and it creates a breeding ground for radicalism, often at the expense of democracy, culture and dialogue.