Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila has performed to audiences around the world only to be faced troubles back home.
Over the years, the band's music has evolved, its audience has expanded. Today, the band is one of the biggest music acts in the region. But, Lebanon, the one country that should be the band's number one advocate, just took a stand against them. The Byblos International Festival Committee recently canceled Mashrou Leila's upcoming concert in August, citing security reasons. The festival said the decision came about to avoid "bloodshed," Human Rights Watch reported.
"We regret what has happened and would like to apologize to the attendees," the festival said in a statement.
The cancelation comes a week after the band was faced with pressure to cancel as threats from a number of fundamentalist Christian groups surfaced.
Following the decision, the band released a statement, reassuring the public that their songs do not offend anyone's beliefs.
"Our songs do not insult any sacred religious symbols or beliefs, and that insulting people’s feelings was primarily the result of campaigns of fabrication, defamation, and false accusations of which we were the first victims, and it is unfair to hold us responsible for them. Our respect for others’ beliefs is as firm as our respect for the right to be different," the band wrote.
On July 24, the public prosecution took in two band members for a six-hour interrogation. According to HRW, State Security officers forced them to pledge to remove and "sensor content on their social media accounts." This happened despite the fact that the Mount Lebanon prosecutor, Judge Ghada Aoun, released the band members without charge following the questioning.
Mashrou' Leila was accused of "blasphemy" from the Catholic Church and various social media groups, one of which has been blocked on Facebook, with regards to two songs — Djin and Asnam. The band ultimately removed the songs from their Facebook and Youtube accounts.
"Such pledges violate the band members' right to free speech, given that Lebanese lawyers agree that they are unconstitutional and have no legal basis," HRW said.
Last week, Rev. Abdo Abu Kasm, the director of the Catholic International Center, said the rejection of the band has everything to do with Christian values.
"The songs performed by Mashrou' Leila touch directly on Christian beliefs," he said, according to The Daily Star. He added that the center cannot accept their songs to be played at a concert attended by thousands of people.
The four-member band, whose lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay, has toured different countries, only to be barred from performing in their home country.
"A dark day for freedom"
Mashrou' Leila has performed numerous times in the country, including twice at the Byblos International Festival — once in 2010 and another in 2016. They've also performed in Ehden, Forum De Beyrouth, among other places.
In 2010, Hamed Sinno raised the LGBTIQ+ flag during the band's Byblos concert, publicly taking a stand with respect to homosexuality in the Arab world. Sinno fearlessly made his own sexuality crystal clear, making the band one of the biggest LGBTIQ+ allies for Arabs struggling with their own sexuality.
"I think for me and for rest of the band, as allies, there's a big question about visibility being one entry point to actual change," Sinno once told StepFeed.
Mashrou' Leila's music tackles subjects that are considered taboo in the Arab world and aims to break the Arab image out of its orientalist mold. The band's song Shim El Yasmine is just one example. It has become a "gay anthem within the Arab LGBT community," as The HuffPost once put it.
So, why the sudden change in acceptance?
Arab countries have banned Mashrou' Leila in the past
In 2017, the Lebanese band performed to a sold-out crowd in Egypt. Following the concert, Egypt's Musicians syndicate said it will ban the band from performing in the country again. A day later, seven people were arrested for raising rainbow flags - which authorities referred to as the "flag of homosexuals" - during the concert. The individuals were detained under charges of "promoting sexual deviancy" and "inciting immorality."
That same year, Mashrou' Leila's scheduled performance in Jordan was put to a halt, despite the fact that the members had been granted approval from the country's tourism ministry and obtained all necessary licenses. Tens of ministers and members of parliament had reportedly signed a petition against the performance, only to be followed by an official decision by the ministry of interior. It came a year after Jordanian authorities decided to ban the band from performing in Amman, announcing the decision only a few days before the concert was set to take place on April 29, 2016.