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Freedom of repression: Lebanon's Christian inquisitors invoke 'blasphemy' laws to punish gay-fronted band Mashrou' Leila Open in fullscreen

Kareem Chehayeb

Freedom of repression: Lebanon's Christian inquisitors invoke 'blasphemy' laws to punish gay-fronted band Mashrou' Leila

Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila could face up to ten years in prison [Redferns/Getty]

Date of publication: 27 July, 2019

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Analysis: The crackdown on Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila over their pro LGBT+ rights stance and lyrics deemed 'offensive' to Christianity could set a dangerous precedent, writes Kareem Chehayeb.
Despite having a reputation as a liberal enclave in the region, Lebanon could deploy archaic blasphemy laws to censor or even jail members of Mashrou' Leila, as the internationally acclaimed band's edgy lyrics and support for LGBT+ rights test the growing restrictions on freedom of expression in the small Arab country.

Mashrou' Leila have been banned or triggered controversies in other Arab countries, most notably Jordan and Egypt, but many had thought Lebanon's relatively open attitudes would shield them from similar recriminations here.

The attack on the band in its home country started with a series of threats and accusations of blasphemy by Christian fundamentalist groups a few weeks before their August 9 concert in Byblos, a tourist-favourite town north of Beirut that hosts an annual summer festival.

Although Byblos (Jbeil) has a mixed Christian and Shia Muslim population, local Church-linked officials subsequently endorsed calls to ban the band from the town on the same grounds.

The band could now be banned from performing and they are already facing legal action from individual citizens and powerful church groups with considerable influence over government officials in a country notorious for its sectarian politics.

The band's detractors claim lyrics from songs off their 2015 album, Ibn El Leil (Son of the Night) and memes shared by the band's openly gay frontman Hamed Sinno online "insulted Christianity' and broke criminal laws that carry potential jail sentences.

One of the songs' controversial lyrics goes: "Drown my liver in gin / in the name of the father and the son," a playful allusion to the ritual of baptism.

Matters have since escalated quickly: the band, minus singer Hamed Sinno who is in New York, were interrogated for six hours at State Security, an infamous agency that reports directly to Lebanon's president and prime minister.

This is the same agency that detained, interrogated, and allegedly tortured Lebanese actor Ziad Itani over fabricated accusations of cooperating with Israel.

Following the band's interrogation, they seem to have pledged to remove the 'insulting' songs from their Facebook page and not to perform them in their concerts. The song Djinn was then removed from their Facebook and YouTube pages, but there has been no official announcement to confirm from the band, which has kept a low profile during the affair so far.

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

The band later met with Byblos Archbishop Michel Aoun and other religious officials from the town as well organisers of the festival, and representatives from Christian parties such as the Kataeb, Lebanese Forces, and the Free Patriotic Movement. 

Lebanon's Penal Code, which dates back to 1943, has many articles that Human Rights Watch and others have called 'archaic'

Archaic blasphemy provisions in Lebanon's Penal Code

Lebanon's Penal Code, which dates back to 1943, has many articles that Human Rights Watch and others have called "archaic". The band risks facing legal charges based on at least four specific articles, three of which are related to blasphemy.

Exclusive: an interview with Mashrou' Leila - 'This is how we made it'
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Article 473 criminalises "blaspheming in the name of God", while Article 473 criminalises "defaming religious rites" or its promotion.

Article 475, in addition to the desecration of religious or sacred objects, criminalises the "distortion of religious rituals or ceremonies or religious drawings related to those rituals". And Article 317 criminalises "every writing and speech intended to provoke sectarian or racial strife or [to] encourage conflict between sects".

Many of these were used in the past against metal bands at the request of the church, which in the 1990s accused both the genre's fans and musicians of 'devil worship'.

Should these laws be deployed now against Mashrou' Leila, they could face up to a decade in prison.

Judge Ghada Aoun on Thursday dismissed one of the charges brought against them by blogger and self-styled 'defender of Christianity' Philippe Seif. In a Facebook post condemning the band earlier, Seif said Mashrou Leila's "legs should be broken before they set foot again in Byblos".

But addition to Seif's lawsuit against the band, legal complaints were also lodged by Catholic Church affiliated groups.

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

"The interrogation [of Mashrou Leila], based on overly broad and archaic criminal insult and incitement laws is yet another example of why these laws need to be replaced urgently," Human Rights Watch Lebanon Researcher Aya Majzoub told The New Arab.

"One of the accusations leveled against them is that they are inciting sectarian tensions, but the law is so vague that it does not define what that means".

In a public statement released by the watchdog on 26 July, Majzoub described Mashrou' Leila as "Lebanon's latest free speech victim".

Lebanese officials have been relatively quiet. The only MP who spoke out was the independent Paula Yacoubian, criticising the situation and saying that it will backfire in favour of the band.

Though his party was present to back the Church's move, Kataeb leader MP Sami Gemmayel told Al-Hurra TV that while he believes in respecting religion, he expressed concern about "police-state-like repressions" of censorship in Lebanon.

But the Lebanese Forces party, which is represented in both the government and parliament, issued a statement calling on Byblos International Festival organisers to cancel the show at the behest of the Church.

The prominent band's case is seen as part of a larger pattern of crackdowns on freedom of expression in Lebanon

Fears for Lebanon's freedoms

The prominent band's case is seen as part of a larger pattern of crackdowns on free speech in Lebanon, once a beacon for freedoms in the region.

Bassem Deibess, a musician with Lebanese heavy metal band Blaakyum, told The New Arab that he feels that the current situation resembles what he and others went through a couple of decades ago.

"From my [past] experience it was worse because I was jailed, and many other metal fans and musicians were jailed simply for performing or listening to that kind of music," he said.

"Why is this happening now? I do not know… though they have performed many times in Byblos!"

"Things seem to be regressing, and this is why a lot of us, even those who don't enjoy [Mashrou' Leila's] music are supporting them."

Lebanese activist Assaad Thebian, a prominent organiser during the 2015 garbage crisis protests, was accused of blasphemy during the height of the movement.

FPM MP Ziad Aswad and three others from different groups lodged legal complaints against him, accusing him of blasphemy and inciting sectarianism. They cited an old Facebook post, where Thebian commented on the Easter holiday using sexual innuendos. The lawsuit was filed in 2015, though no judicial decision has been made yet.

The impact of such lawsuits can be financially crippling. Lebanese trilingual cooperative comic book Samandal came close to bankruptcy in late 2015, following legal complaints against three of the editors on accusations of blasphemy. A last-gasp crowdfunding campaign kept them afloat but they have not published any issues of the Samandal series since.

Sahar Mandour, Lebanon Researcher at Amnesty International told The New Arab that the situation is "alarming" and sets a dangerous precedent. 

"I fear that religious institutions and others calling for fear or terror will lead to more cancelation and bans of cultural events in Lebanon, creating more barriers to freedom of expression," Mandour said.

"It's alarming how there are so many red lines, and how there are so many people creating them."

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk

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