Hamed Sinno (C), the lead singer of Lebanese band Mashrou Leila, on stage at the Dubai International Marine Club during a music festival in the United Arab Emirates on April, 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Karim Sahib

Lebanese Christian leaders, in a bid to resurrect their influence, have entered into a Faustian pact with reactionary forces, anointing the indie pop band Mashrou’ Leila as their sacrificial lamb.

Mashrou’ Leila, led by an openly gay frontman, has for years pushed the limits of social commentary in the Arab world. But never before had the four-man group faced censure in their home country, until now.

A performance slated to take place on August 9 in Lebanon’s northern port city of Byblos was abruptly canceled this week, the result of a weeks-long pressure campaign launched by local clergy, stoked by sectarian political and media figures, and carried to a boiling point by the Christian street.

The attacks started on July 22, when the Maronite authorities of Byblos published a statement to Facebook accusing the band of “insulting Christian beliefs” and urging the festival to cancel their participation. In parallel, lawyer Christine Nakhoul petitioned the government to prosecute the band, citing laws against insulting religion and stoking sectarian tensions.

Two members of Mashrou’ Leila were called in for police interrogation, even as prominent political figures advocated violence without apparent repercussions.

“This is not a warning … this is a direct threat against this group and everyone who helps promote their concert in Byblos,” said Naji Emile Hayek, a high-ranking member of the Free Patriotic Movement, the party of the sitting Lebanese president.

“This show will be blocked by force, and I hope I won’t have to be the first one. There is no place in Byblos for those who insult the Cross and the Christ,” he added in a Facebook post.

The Ministry of Interior declined to comment to Asia Times as to whether it would offer heightened security for the concert.

Overwhelmed with threats of violence against the band and concertgoers, and faced with the inaction of the state security and silence of the presidency, the volunteer Byblos International Festival committee said they had no choice but to call off the show.

While human rights groups condemned the ban as part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression, local observers say there is something else at play: anxiety over the future of Christianity in Lebanon.

Crusade for relevance

For Georges Azzi, director of the Beirut-based Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, the rabid wave of attacks against Mashrou’ Leila was not about morals or homophobia, but a desire on the part of Christian leaders to project power.

“We are at a stage now where the Christians are trying to prove that we can be radical too … [they] are trying to prove they still exist and still have power,” he said.

Mashrou’ Leila presented the perfect sacrifice, he said, since the average person would not be familiar with the indie band or its lyrics. For Christian leaders to ignore or even incite the campaign presented zero political cost. Taking a moral stand, on the other hand, offered no gain. 

Rumors about the band spread like wildfire on social media, with agitators publishing artsy stage sets and masks from their concerts as proof of devil worshipping, making claims of teenage girls committing suicide after listening to their songs, and accusing its members of being freemasons.

Karim Emile Bitar, a professor and co-founder of the Lebanese NGO Kulluna Irada, says the stance taken by the Christian clergy and politicians comes from a place of weakness.

“They are unable to tackle the really important problems like corruption, the environmental emergency and the coming economic bankruptcy … and because they feel impotent, they are resorting to populist speeches in order to score easy victories,” he told Asia Times. 

The general public, he added, is aware that their leaders have been unable to solve pressing concerns, but are at the same time sensitive to slights against their faith.

“You have people who are devout, extreme-right conservative Christians among the flock, and they feel whenever there is an attack on a Muslim religious figure, the other parties react in force, whereas the Christians are too soft,” Bitar said. 

While some members of the Maronite church hierarchy tend to be more liberal, the other end of the spectrum includes censorship activists, who succeeded in making Lebanon one of the handful of countries to ban The Da Vinci Code in 2004.

“Because the Christians appear weak politically, some members of the church are trying to take a tough stand on moral issues: homosexuality, etcetera. So it is related to the existential anxieties of the Lebanese Christians. They fear their very survival is at stake,” he said. 

The silence of the Interior Minister in the face of the public safety threats, Bitar added, was understood to be in deference to the Christian parties.

Demographic SOS

Lebanon is governed on the basis of a National Pact negotiated on the eve of its independence from France in 1943. Key government posts were allotted to each religious sect, but with the Maronite Catholics guaranteed the presidency and the majority in parliament – all based on the last census conducted in 1932.

That census has never been updated. Any effort to do so would be seen as an implicit challenge to the delicate power-sharing arrangement and Christian influence in the country.

But on July 27, as the campaign against Mashrou’ Leila was reaching fever pitch, a private Beirut-based firm released its own findings on the country’s demographics: Christians, it said, now make up only one-third of the population.

The Muslim population, it said, increased nearly 800% since 1932 to 3.39 million people, while the Christian population grew only 175% to 1.07 million.

For Marwan Naaman, a magazine editor, the campaign by the Maronite church against Mashrou’ Leila is linked to fears of marginalization.

During the parliamentary elections of 2018, he notes, the Shiite movement Hezbollah for the first time backed its own list of candidates in the greater Byblos district – as opposed to deferring to its Christian allies in the Free Patriotic Movement.

While the Hezbollah-backed list did not gain any seats, its mobilization campaign came as a shock to area Christians, according to Naaman.

“Minorities here are afraid, because they feel they’re being eliminated … We saw what happened to the Syrian and Iraqi Christians and how they disappeared overnight. And we feel this is the last bastion in the Arab world where they’re politically represented and can still live with a bit of dignity, and even that is under threat,” he said. 

“I think that drives these irrational actions from the church.” 

On social media, perhaps the most biting criticism of the crusade against Mashrou’ Leila was the lack of a similar passion to solve more serious crises, which are many.

In May, when residents of a Christian town in Mount Lebanon were protesting against the installation of high-voltage power lines above homes and schools, the Maronite patriarch appeared to take the side of the state. Top clergy appeared similarly unmoved by calls from constituents to halt a US$600 million World Bank-financed dam. Meanwhile, rampant illegal quarrying often takes place on land leased from the Maronite church.

While the concert cancellation was presented as a victory, it was also a spectacle. “The power lines, the Bisri Dam, the quarrying; those are things people would really appreciate,” said Naaman.

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