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With the threats against 'Mashrou' Leila', freedom of speech and artistic expression are at stake


Artistic and expressive freedom, as well as the LGBT community, are again the targets of a threat campaign; human rights activists are warning against "a return to obscurantism".

The specter of censorship and intolerance hangs over Lebanon again, and with it an unpleasant after-taste of a witch hunt worthy of the dark days of the Middle Ages. The target of the censorship this time is the famous Lebanese pop group ‘Mashrou’ Leila’, whose concert is scheduled for August 9th as part of the Byblos Festival.

The issue started two days ago with threats -which were posted on Facebook-, made by Nagi Hayek, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement in Jbeil. "This is not only a warning about the August 9 concert in Jbeil. This is a direct threat to the group and to all those working to promote its concerts in Jbeil. We will prevent the concert by force if need be, and I will be the first one to do so. Anyone who offends the Cross and Christ has no place in Jbeil," wrote Mr. Hayek, who later removed the post from his Facebook page, but not without having sparked things off on both social networks and within a part of the Maronite clergy.

It seems that what stirred the anger of many of the people and parties involved is the sexual orientation of the group’s openly gay singer, Hamed Sinno, as well as an article he shared on social networks that contained a picture of a Russian or Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary with the singer Madonna’s head in place of Mary’s. Not to mention the band’s song titled ‘Djin’ (2015), which has been circulated on social networks, and its lyrics dissected as critics claim it insults Christianity and promotes occultism.

Yesterday, ‘Mashrou' Leila’ responded to its detractors, saying it was surprised by the attacks on the group. According to a statement issued by the members, and which was broadcast yesterday on social networks: "The Byblos Festival invited us to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the group’s formation. We were surprised by an unfounded campaign against us that strikes [at] the freedom of expression and hints at apostasy.

" ‘Mashrou’ Leila’ was on an international tour recently. We were so happy to be invited to sing in our country. We do not understand these protests regarding one of our songs, and which does not harm anyone. We have already sung it in international festivals as well as in Lebanon, in Baalbeck, Byblos, Amchit and Ehden", explain the musicians. The band expressed their disappointment at seeing some of the lyrics of the song in question being "taken out of context ". "We are four young Lebanese coming from different faiths, and united by our love for music (...). Our goal is to create art, to highlight humanitarian causes. We want to carry high the name of Lebanon, and with it the respect due to religions and their symbols”, said the statement.

"Perversion, depravity ..."

The comments made by the CPL member on Facebook were followed by a series of virulent reactions from Internet users, including Father Camille Mubarak, a bishop and head of the doctoral school at La Sagesse University. "Jbeil, the citadel of civilization, is not a place for perversion. I ask the people of Jbeil in particular, and the Lebanese in general to boycott ‘Mashrou’ Leila’, the group that will sing in Jbeil. They will be spreading depravity, corruption and disrespect for religious symbols”, wrote the bishop on his Facebook page yesterday.

Some Internet users adhering to the CPL agenda, have called for violence against the group’s members, while others have accused ‘Mashrou’ Leila’s members of being "Satan worshipers", and even being on ”Israel’s payroll”. Even the Maronite Archbishop of Jbeil called for the cancellation of the concert in a statement released yesterday. Whatever else is said, it appears that the homosexuality of lead singer Hamed Sinno is at the core of the problem.

"We have received complaints about a group that encourages homosexuality. They have also attacked Christian religious symbols”, explained Father Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Information Center, to Orient-Le Jour. The religious dignitary also mentioned the lyrics of some of the group’s songs which, according to him, "undermine the Trinity". Nevertheless, the Archbishop condemned the calls for violence against ‘Mashrou’ Leila’, adding, "We do not live in a jungle. If the law allows them to perform so be it, otherwise it will be up to the law to prevent them”. Father Abu Kassm said that he was exploring the possibility of taking the group to court. Moreover, Christiane Nakhoul, a lawyer, filed a complaint against the group before the prosecutor's office of Mount Lebanon on behalf of activist Philippe Seif, for "attacking religions and inciting sectarian discord and community dissensions". Yesterday, the Lebanese Forces, headed by Maronite leader Samir Geagea, expressed their support for the Maronite Archbishop of Jbeil and to the Center for Catholic Information, the two authorities that called for the cancellation of Mashrou’ Leila’s concert.

Interviewed by L'Orient-Le Jour, Simon Abiramia MP for Jbeil (CPL), declined to comment, merely indicating that he was working to deal the controversy within his capacity as a politician who respects and enforces the law. "I am getting together with the other two MPs of the region, Ziad Hawat (FL) and Mustafa Husseini (Independent). We need forty-eight hours to be able to deal with this issue in a serene way. I respect the freedom of artistic and cultural expression, but we live in a country that has its own characteristics,” he said. “I am not Nagi Hayek and I will treat this case with responsibility.” Other far-right Christian groups have also virulently attacked the group.

Resist "obscurantism"

The President of the Rally of Saydet el-Jabal and former Deputy of Jbeil, Fares Souhaid, showed his support for the group, as well as for freedom of expression. "I did not understand a single word of ‘Mashrou’ Leila’s’ songs, which I listened to yesterday”, he wrote with humor on Twitter. “Those who challenge the teachings of the Church are the criminals, the corrupt, and those who rob the poor and undermine the values of the country. Boycott them if you like, you have the right. But let Lebanon have a bit of freedom”, he added. Bertho Makso, Executive Director of Proud Lebanon, an association that advocates for the rights of the gay community in Lebanon, is convinced that the sexual orientation of the group’s singer is the main problem. "The fact that Hamed Sinno is homosexual is probably one of the reasons that is motivating those who are contesting and opposing the concert. This reminds us of what happened in Egypt and Jordan (in 2017, the band's concerts were canceled after fans posted the infamous LGBT flag in Cairo, and because of the singer's sexual orientation). We do not approve of becoming one of those repressive countries," Makso told L’OLJ.

Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the SKeyes Foundation for Freedom of the Press and Culture believes that "it is essential that the festival does not cancel the concert of ‘Mashrou' Leila’. We must resist any form of obscurantism. They want to impose a pseudo-religious morality by ignoring violence and corruption,” he stressed. “I think there is an inferiority complex within the Christian authorities in Lebanon. They want to prove that they can defend their morals."

The Byblos Festival has not yet decided on how to settle the issue, but sources within the management are saying that they are working -through contacts with the relevant authorities- to allow the concert to go ahead.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of July)

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