The Mashrou' Leila affair is a wakeup call for free speech defenders in Lebanon

The Mashrou' Leila affair is a wakeup call for free speech defenders in Lebanon
Although its gig was cancelled under pressure from Christian groups, Mashrou' Leila have become a symbol in a country where activists say there's a growing crackdown on free speech.
7 min read
30 July, 2019
Mashrou Leila has become a symbol for freedom of expression in Lebanon [AFP]
On Tuesday, an upcoming concert by Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila was cancelled, following threats by Christian fundamentalists and church-linked groups over their taboo-breaking lyrics and the sexuality of the band's openly gay frontman Hamed Sinno.

Byblos Festival organizers said they made their decision "to prevent bloodshed", but the affair has since triggered profound soul-searching in Lebanon, once known for its relatively liberal attitudes and personal freedoms in the region. 

On Monday, dozens chanted the name of the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila in a protest held in support of the group which has come under pressure to cancel their August 9 performance at the Byblos International Festival over their lyrics. 

The band has since become a symbol for freedom of expression in a country where activists say there has been a growing crackdown on free speech.

The kind of hostility that is being directed towards Mashrou' Leila is nothing new and has been steadily expanding due to an increased reliance by various religious groups in the country on sectarian fearmongering, says journalist and activist Diana Moukallad.

"In the past few years, there have been at least 40 cases of arrest or people being summoned by the police because of what they say on social media," often in relation to 'insults' to religion, Moukallad explained. "This is in addition to growing censorship on films and on books". 

To Moukallad, however, the most pressing issue right now is freedom of expression, not identity politics.

"Lebanon, relatively compared to the region, enjoys more freedoms. Unfortunately, we are being affected by what’s happening around us. Those who are in power, be they parties, political leaders, or religious groups in Lebanon, are trying to control more and more the spaces we have". 

This sentiment is echoed by Human Rights Watch's LGBT+ researcher for the Middle East and North Africa Rasha Younes who expressed concern over censorship. She says already marginalised groups, such as the LGBT+ community in Lebanon, have also come under even greater scrutiny as a result, rather than receiving protection from the government.

Georges Azzi, the co-founder of Helem, a non-profit organisation that looks to improve the legal and societal status of the LGBT+ community, agrees with this belief. 

"I think it's many issues combined," Azzi explained, "But it's mostly a freedom of expression issue. The other thing is the issue of protection. I think that even if there is any violation happening online, the fact is that we receive death threats, Mashrou' Leila received death threats and there has been no protection from the authorities."

The campaign against Mashrou' Leila began as a call by Christian groups incensed by the band's lyrics that allude to baptism and the over sexuality of its gay lead

Christian populism

Throughout the Middle East, Christianity is a minority religion and in Lebanon, Christian politicians like their counterparts in other communities often shore up their legitimacy by claiming to defend the community against perceived threats from other groups and secular voices.

Many today find the populist rhetoric used by Christian-dominated parties the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and its rival to the right, the Lebanese Forces troubling.

The campaign against Mashrou' Leila began as a call by Christian groups incensed by the band's lyrics that alluded to baptism and over the sexuality of its gay lead. But these calls quickly received widespread support from Christian mainstream voices including FPM supporters. While the FPM has not officially commented on the affair, their rivals in the Christian community the Lebanese Forces endorsed the call to boycott or ban the concert altogether.

These Christian parties are inspired by Hizballah, Moukallad claims, "an ideological party that has succeeded in controlling the supporters through religion". In her view, Christian populist parties are looking to do the same "because this what they think will create a stronger Christian community... If there's anything that they think will gain them popularity in the community, then they will do it". 

In the past few months, FPM-affiliated Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, son-in-law to President Michel Aoun, has been accused of using inflammatory rhetoric against mostly Muslim refugees, casting them as outsiders alien to the Lebanese fabric. To Moukallad, the two issues are inseparable.

Public opinion has been split over the controversy surrounding the band, but many Lebanese, even those who are not fans of their music, agree that the freedom of expression is important and needs to be preserved.

Defending speech

While public opinion has been split over the controversy surrounding the band, many Lebanese, even those who are not fans of their music, agree that the freedom of expression is important and needs to be preserved.

"The issue is with the definition of freedom of speech itself," Omar al-Hilwe said at the protest.

"It's not clear in the mind of the Lebanese people. In Lebanon and due to religious sensitivity, many say that freedom stops when it comes to religious figures or thoughts. So, religion is a red line". 

Read also: Mashrou Leila light up London's Roundhouse in edgy defiance

Moe Jaber for his part says that many of those who were calling for cancelling the Mashrou' Leila concert only have a superficial and basic understanding of what freedom of expression is. Many of those opposed to the band believe that freedom of speech is meant to protect your religion from criticism, he adds.

"There are two camps that stand against the band," Jaber explains.

"There's one camp that's doing it out of pure dogma, but there's also a second, more obnoxious camp, which is doing it out of a superficial understanding of what freedom of speech is. They think that insulting [religion] is a breach of their freedom". 

"When it comes to ideas, whether religious or anything, freedom of expression guarantees the right to criticise or be harsh or even mock these ideas whether it's Islam, Christianity or Judaism," Moukallad insists.

The band’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and has advocated for LGBT+ rights throughout the region

LGBT+ rights in the spotlight

Another issue that has come to light since during the Mashrou' Leila affair is LGBT+ rights in Lebanon.

The band’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and has advocated for LGBT+ rights. However, some have used his sexuality as a means of discrediting the band, something that Azzi said was nothing new.

"They use different excuses to attack freedom of expression," he said. "Every time that they want to discredit an activist or a singer, they can use anything in the public discourse against them. In this case, I think that they said that [Hamed] Sinno insulted the virgin Mary which is not true. He just shared an article. His homosexuality was invoked as well."

Some people have since taken to social media to condemn homosexuality with some even going as far advocating the widely denounced conversion therapy.

Azzi was quick to point out that many Lebanese rush to demonise the community as soon as something "bad" happens.

"People are getting used to the fact that the LGBT+ community exists," he explained, "But whenever you express an opinion that bother anybody, then, it becomes, 'you gays are trying to ruin our society'...There was a protest in Jbeil where they were holding banners that said 'This is not Sodom and Gamora’ which is completely unrelated to the subject". 

While the LGBT+ community is becoming more accepted in Lebanon, laws and practices that are discriminatory against its members are still in force. 

Younes points to the shutting down of Beirut Pride in 2018 and the arresting of its organisers as an example of how far Lebanon still needs to come when it concerns the LGBT community.

"We're seeing a misrepresentation of these events," HRW's Younes said

"What continues to be brought up is incitements of immorality, incitements of debauchery, that these events violate Lebanese public order, that these events contribute to the demise of Lebanese society but this is discriminatory language. The language itself violates international law, and violates Lebanon’s obligations". 

Read also: Lebanon must end religious 'hate campaign' against Mashrou' Leila

Ultimately, however, Moukallad sees the attacks on Mashrou' Leila as being a "setback" in the wider battle for freedom of expression in Lebanon.

"This is the battle of Lebanon and this is the battle of the whole region," she says. "People have been killed because they were trying to express their freedoms'' . 

"I think that Lebanon has no meaning if we lose this space," she adds solemnly, "We don't have any kind of security, financial or environmental, but losing our voice, that would be the death of Lebanon. We would just be another Syria, another Egypt, another Gulf [country], another Iraq, another Iran or another Turkey. Let's hope not."

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist who reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno