SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Who’s to blame for Mashrou’ Leila cancellation?

Thursday , 01 August 2019

It’s easy to simply blame the Byblos International Festival for axing Mashrou’ Leila’s Aug. 9 concert, but that would be a distraction. No one can reasonably expect a festival alone to provide the assurances - security, political and otherwise - necessary for such a concert to go ahead when faced with threats of violence. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the state and local politicians. So where were they?
When it comes to protecting freedom of expression, the state often seems to be absent. In cases where it does engage, it usually works to repress.
Earlier this year, General Security did not allow metal band Sepultura to enter Lebanon because some of its song lyrics allegedly disrespected Christianity. The agency also banned six films last year and two films so far this year, according to the Samir Kassir Foundation, which works to promote freedom of expression.
One might also look at the successive recent instances in which Lebanese authorities have shut down LGBTQ-related events, including a conference organized by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, which works to advance LGBTQ and other human rights.
Last year authorities detained the head of Beirut Pride overnight on the grounds that he did not have the proper permission to hold the event, and later effectively forced him to cancel it.
And now the episode involving Mashrou’ Leila - led by an openly gay man.
Some of the band members were interrogated by security forces, while those who threatened them roamed free.
Yet not a peep of support could be heard from the Cabinet ministers, appointed by conservative confessional parties.
While two Christian MPs - Sami Gemayel and Paula Yacoubian - publicly voiced support for the concert to go ahead, the three lawmakers representing Jbeil released a joint statement calling for its cancellation.
We didn’t hear a whisper from the culture minister, even though his job description ostensibly includes promoting Lebanon’s cultural scene.
Nor was any public statement made by the Interior Ministry, headed by Raya El Hassan, a Sunni who could have mobilized both the Internal Security Forces and General Security.
Hassan told The Daily Star that the ministry didn’t issue any assurances because it was not sure the concert would go ahead, and that it would have put security measures in place had the show gone on as planned.
But why?
Lebanon’s confessional system may come into play. The criticism of Mashrou’ Leila was spearheaded by Christians online, and by the Maronite Church and right-wing church-affiliated bodies.
Even in the unlikely case that any of the 15 Muslim ministers or 64 Muslim lawmakers had wanted to voice support for the band, they would not have dared to. Doing so would have meant trampling on another sect’s turf, interfering in someone else’s Lebanon.
It is “difficult for a Sunni PM or Sunni interior minister to weigh in on this sensitive issue,” Karim Emile Bitar of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies tweeted.
“I tend to put most blame on the president, the sectarian Christian parties who joined the calls to boycott the group or who tolerate incitement and the MPs who supported the censorship.”
Those Christian lawmakers and officials also have their calculations to make.
Locked in a battle over who represents Lebanon’s Christians, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, to whose parliamentary blocs the two Maronite Jbeil lawmakers belong, are unlikely to side against the church.
Nor are they likely to oppose even the more radical elements of their own support bases in favor of an unorthodox band with a gay frontman.
So if there is a takeaway from this embarrassing episode for our country, let it not be that we should simply #BoycottByblosFestival, as some have urged.
Instead, let it be clear that valuable freedom of expression will continue to be trampled upon in Lebanon as long as the state is split between those who dare not comment on such matters and those who have no interest in doing so.

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