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The New Arab

Qatar-based US university cancels Mashrou' Leila event after social media backlash

Mashrou' Leila's appearance at Northwestern University's Qatar campus was cancelled following social media hostility.

Date of publication: 4 February, 2020

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An American university's Qatar campus was forced to cancel an event featuring Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila after hostile objections on social media.

An American university’s Qatar campus cancelled an event featuring Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese indie rock band with a gay frontman, after a social media backlash elicited safety concerns.

Mashrou’ Leila which was hailed by the university for its “important global voice on issues of free speech, gay rights and politics”, was slated to participate in a discussion on “media revolutions in the Middle East” at the Northwestern University-Qatar. 

However, due to hostile reactions by conservative and anti-gay social media users, the Doha campus was forced to cancel the band’s appearance. 

Jon Yates, Northwestern's Director of Media Relations told The New Arab that the university and the band mutually agreed to move the event to Northwestern's home campus in Evanston, Illinois, though a date is yet to be announced.

Yates said that the decision was reached due to safety concerns for the band and the school's campus community.

"Because Northwestern firmly believes that the band's ideas, their art and their voices are important for the world to hear, the university is working to bring them to our home campus in the US," Yates said.

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

The backlash stemmed from claims that the band’s appearance is an affront to Qatari and Islamic morals due to the sexuality of its lead singer and the band's controversial lyrics, some of which borrow from religious scriptures. The hashtag #نرفض_محاضره_مشروع_ليلي - which translates to “We reject the Mashrou’ Leila lecture” - surfaced on Twitter.

Despite the backlash online, the hashtag has also been used to denounce Mashrou’ Leila’s critics.

The band has elicited global acclaim, though the hostility in Qatar is the latest in a string of controversies that has followed it around the Arab world. Mashrou’ Leila has tackled the MENA region's taboo social issues through their lyrics and have advocated for tenets of freedom and equality. Hamed Sinno, the band’s openly gay frontman, has become an LGBT+ icon in the region.

In July 2019, Mashrou' Leila's concert at a music festival in Byblos, Lebanon was cancelled following outrage and threats by Christian fundamentalists. The band was accused of blasphemy and “promoting homosexuality” by church leaders and social media users.

In 2017, Egyptian authorities detained seven people for raising the LGBT+ rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo. The band was subsequently banned from performing in Egypt.

Meanwhile, planned performances by the band in Jordan were cancelled in 2016 and 2017 amid protests by conservative lawmakers.

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