LEBANESE band Mashrou’ Leila was due to perform at the Byblos International Festival on August 9 but organisers of the event have cancelled their concert amidst fears of ‘bloodshed’ threatened by hard-line Christians.
The band angered members of the Maronite Christian Church after its gay lead singer Hamed Sinno, above, shared a “blasphemous” image of the singer Madonna as the Virgin Mary on Facebook in 2015. Sinno is an activist who campaigns for LGBT rights in the Middle East and beyond.
The controversy, said The New York Times, raised questions about religious tolerance and freedom of expression in the relatively moderate, multi-sectarian and Muslim-majority country.
In the 10 years since it was formed, Mashrou’ Leila (Arabic for Leila’s Project) has won millions of young fans, and its popularity has grown beyond the Arab world. The band is banned from performing in Egypt and Jordan but has performed at Byblos in the past. Sinno is an activist who campaigns for LGBT rights in the Middle East and beyond.
In recent weeks, Christian groups had denounced the four-member band as devil worshippers and threatened to stop the August concert by force if necessary. Christian lawmakers joined the campaign and vowed to work with the local authorities in Byblos to stop the show.
This month, the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Jbeil, a province of the church, also called for cancellation of the show, saying the band’s songs were “blasphemous” and “an insult to Christian sanctities.”
Band members were grilled by the state security authorities after they were accused of religious insults. Following their release hours later, two songs deemed offensive — “Djin” and “Idols” — were taken down from the band’s YouTube channel in Lebanon. The picture of the singer Madonna was also removed.
The cancellation has led to a Dutch heavy metal band pulling out of the festival in protest. Within Temptation announced on Facebook yesterday:
We have decided to cancel our show in Byblos in solidarity with Mashrou’ Leila and in support of tolerance, freedom of speech and expression.
Within Temptation criticised the Lebanese government for their failure to provide adequate security to enable entertainers to “perform in peace”.
Some Lebanese artists have expressed support for the band. The singer Carole Samaha said on Twitter that she was “saddened” by the show’s cancellation. The musician and composer Marcel Khalife wondered on his Facebook page if his country was becoming “a nation of fear.”
Rights advocates have expressed concern over the show’s cancellation and its wider significance.
Lynn Maalouf, the Middle East Research Director of Amnesty International, said in a statement:
Mashrou’ Leila played the same songs at the same venue only three years ago. The fact that they are now unable to perform amidst calls of hatred and violence is an alarming indicator of the deterioration of the situation with regards to freedom of expression in the country.
In response to the festival’s move, some fans on social media turned to the lyrics of the band’s song “Wa Nueid”, or “And Again”. The words say:
Tell them we are still standing. Tell them we are still resisting.