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Byblos axes Mashrou’ Leila concert
July 31, 2019
Author: Timour Azhari
Source: The Daily Star

The Lebanese indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila will no longer play at this summer’s Byblos International Festival, its performance having been canceled following pressure from Christian groups.
“In an unprecedented step, and due to the successive developments, the [Byblos festival] committee was forced to stop the Mashrou’ Leila concert set for Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, ... in order to prevent bloodshed and to maintain security and stability,” the festival’s committee said in a statement Tuesday.
“We are sorry for what happened, and apologize to fans,” the statement added.
For rights groups and activists, the decision marks a new low for freedoms of speech and expression and other liberties in the country.
“This is a step back for Lebanon, which has always prided itself on embracing diversity and being a center for music, art and culture in the region,” Aya Majzoub, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, tweeted.
Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which works to promote freedom of expression, told The Daily Star that he feared Tuesday’s cancellation could set a dangerous precedent. “Caving to the demands of a bunch of Christian extremists gives all radicals the green light to go ahead.”
The committee’s decision follows fierce online attacks on the band and pressure from a number of Christian groups, including the Maronite Archdiocese of Jbeil, as well as the Catholic Media Center and the Episcopal Media Committee.
Jbeil MPs Mustafa Husseini, Ziad Hawat and Simon Abi Ramia also issued a joint statement calling for the concert to be canceled that was released shortly after the decision was announced.
The controversy purportedly originated in reaction to an article that the group’s frontman, Hamed Sinno, shared on Facebook in 2015.
It contained an image of the Virgin Mary with the pop diva Madonna’s face superimposed on it.
The lyrics from two of the band’s songs also drew criticism - “Djin” and “Asnaam” (“Idols”), both from the group’s 2015 album, “Ibn El Leil.” “Djin,” which juxtaposes Christian and pagan mythologies in the context of drinking at a bar, makes reference to “the father and the son.”
Both songs have since been removed from the group’s official YouTube account.
But whether those songs and the image are the true subject of the detractors’ ire is questionable. The band has taken the stage in Lebanon multiple times since the album’s 2015 release - in Ehden in both 2017 and 2018, and in Beirut in 2018 - as well as performing in other parts of the Arab world and across Europe and the United States.Many insults and threats leveled at the band in the past week also referenced homosexuality. Sinno is openly gay, and many of the band’s songs address social taboos in Lebanon and the Arab region, including sexuality, sectarianism and other issues.
Mashrou’ Leila has faced bans in Jordan and Egypt and has repeatedly been accused of promoting devil worship. Egypt launched a crackdown on homosexuality in the country after a pride flag was raised at the band’s concert in Cairo in 2017. “Lebanon inches closer to its neighbors in the region where freedoms are trampled upon,” political analyst Halim Shebaya tweeted following the festival’s announcement.
Back in their home country, where the band was returning after performing at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the members have faced an equally harsh response from the government.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Mashrou’ Leila alleged that the state’s weak response to the vicious rhetoric against the band - some of which had called for the use of force - had made its members feel unsafe.
Some of the band members underwent interrogations last week by State Security and Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun.
“We were questioned for the first time in our band’s history over two of our songs, and no position was taken to protect us,” the statement said.
“Although the investigation did not show we had committed any criminal offense, things never changed and the attacks remained the same.”
The band noted its regret for those who felt its songs had offended their beliefs, but added: “We assure them and everyone that these songs do not touch on sanctities or beliefs.”
Instead, the meanings were misconstrued by a campaign of “defamation and false accusations of which we were the first victims, and it is unfair to hold us responsible for them.”
The band members said they had no longer felt “any sense of security or any artistic or creative ability.”
One Twitter user, Naji Emile Hayek, had threatened that if the band were permitted to play, he would stop the performance “by force.”
A number of NGOs, including The Legal Agenda and the Samir Kassir Foundation, have compiled the threats and Tuesday handed them over to acting State Prosecutor Imad Qabalan, “so now the judiciary can’t say ‘We didn’t know it happened,’” Mhanna said.
“They have a full file, and we’re waiting to see if the judiciary will act to defend the country’s laws,” he said.
But so far, only the band members have faced interrogation.
“The fact that the judiciary moved to question Mashrou’ Leila with State Security, while those people who leveled explicit death threats at the band are roaming free, is appalling,” Mhanna said.
In reaction to the controversy, Mashrou’ Leila has seen an outpouring of support, not only online but even in the streets.
Dozens of protesters gathered Monday in Beirut’s Samir Kassir Square to denounce the attacks on the band.
Karl Sharro, an online satirist, wrote: “After the fall of Jbeil at the hands of the crusaders, their march is expected to continue on to the Holy Land.”
As for the band members, they say they will be back, hopefully “in an atmosphere that is more tolerant and accepting of what is different, in a country that really represents what it says boastingly.”