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September 5, 2017 No.
1342

Public Debate In Jordan On Freedoms And Values Following Ban On Rock Band With Gay Singer

By: Z. Harel*

Incidents in Jordan in the past few months have shed light on the authorities' and public's view of the LGBT community. In June 2017, Interior Minister Ghaleb Al-Zu'bi canceled a concert by the Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. The concert was canceled only two weeks before it was scheduled to take place and despite having received all the required permits, following loud protests from Jordanian MPs and members of the public, who claimed that it "offended public sensibilities." This is in fact the second time the Jordanian authorities have banned Mashrou' Leila; a show that was to take place in April 2016 in Amman was also canceled at the last minute, less than a week before it was scheduled to be held.[1] The same year, Jordan blocked access to the Arabic version of the My.Kali webzine, which bills itself as "the first LGBTQIA-inclusive — and the only regularly updated — webzine in Jordan and one of the first in the Middle East and North Africa."[2] These measures are part of the Jordanian government's policy that disallows any activity by the LGBT community that "contravenes the laws of religion or undermines public order," as the Interior Minister explained.

The banning of Mashrou' Leila sparked many responses in the Jordanian media. Columnists in the government daily Al-Rai and in other dailies wrote articles condemning the band and homosexuals in general, and justifying the government's decision. Liberals, on the other hand, sharply condemned the decision, calling it a violation of individual rights and of freedom of expression, and even noting that it harmed Jordan's economy and tourism.

Mashrou' Leila itself responded to the second cancellation of its concert in Jordan in a post on its Facebook page. It wrote that the decision reflected the Jordanian authorities' "fanatical conservatism" and did not at all reflect the feelings of the Jordanian people.

This report reviews the affair of the cancellation of Mashrou' Leila's concert and the reactions it sparked in the kingdom.


Poster announcing Mashrou' Leila's June 27, 2017 concert in Amman, which was canceled (image: facebook.com/mashrou'leila.com May 23, 2017)

Jordan's Interior Ministry Cancels Mashrou' Leila Concert After Tourism Ministry Helps Arrange It

The Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila is very popular in the Arab world, and its songs address social and political issues, among them human rights and sexuality, including homosexuality. Its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is a declared homosexual. The concert that was to be held in Jordan, whose society is conservative, evoked objections that the band's character was "at odds with Jordanian customs and traditions." MP Ibrahim Abu Al-Sayyid, of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) faction in the Jordanian parliament, sent the Interior Minister a letter demanding to cancel the show because it would endanger Jordanian society and its values, especially values pertaining to sexual promiscuity and "forbidden relations." MP Saddah Al-Habashneh even threatened that if the show was not canceled he would use force to prevent it from taking place.[3] Members of the band claim that they received murder threats.[4]

Sharp criticism was also leveled at Tourism Minister Lina 'Annab, whose ministry helped arrange the show in Jordan. Members of the parliamentary tourism committee condemned the ministry's involvement and threatened that if the minister had been personally involved they would act to have her fired.[5] 'Annab replied that her ministry's involvement had been confined to logistic support with the aim of promoting tourism to Jordan. She stated that Mashrou' Leila was a modern band with fans all over the world, and that it was inaccurate to call it a "homosexual" band, since it did not encourage engaging in or permitting homosexual relations.[6] 'Annab's response, in turn, evoked furious reactions. MP Ahmad Al-Raqab urged Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki to dismiss her immediately due to her "negative role in sponsoring events that are completely at odds with the values, customs and traditions of the [Jordanian] state," and even quoted articles of the constitution that he claimed 'Annab had violated.[7]

As mentioned, the outcry prompted Interior Minister Ghaleb Al-Zu'bi to announce the cancellation of the show on June 12, only two weeks before it was scheduled to take place, on the grounds that it offended public sensibilities and aroused public anger.[8]

Proponents Of The Ban: Mashrou' Leila's Values Contravene Jordanian Values

Proponents of the decision to cancel the band's show in Jordan claimed that Mashrou' Leila represented Western values that contravene Jordanian values and undermine Jordan's national unity. Some even called to criminalize homosexuality.

Al-Rai Columnist: Homosexuality Is A Crime Against The Values Of Religion And Society

'Abd Al-Hadi Raji Al-Majali, a columnist for the Jordanian government daily Al-Rai, wrote: "We should be grateful to the Ministry of Interior for preventing the concert [that was supposed to take place] on the road that leads to the airport and was said to be a homosexual [concert]. It was right and proper [to cancel it], but the root of the issue is not preventing the concert out of respect for the values and customs of society. [The main issue is] that we should demand to pass a law defining homosexuality as a fundamentally criminal act. Homosexuality in itself is a crime and an assault on societal and religious values... In our country, when someone writes an article about liberalism and civil society, there are those who call him a criminal on the grounds that [his opinions are] an affront to religion, and when someone publishes a photograph of himself in Tel Aviv, he is dubbed a 'normalizer' [i.e., an advocate of normalizing relations with Israel] and society condemns him and calls his actions 'treason.' The current laws allow the judicial system to bring someone before the State Security [Court] if he expresses solidarity with the Islamic State, even if it is only [by publishing some] photograph. Nor does society pardon those who traffic in Syrian blood or come out against our national principles.

"At the same time, to date there is no legislation criminalizing this phenomenon [homosexuality]. You see them in the streets and in the cafes'… They have clubs, where they frequently spend their time, and they have known [meeting] places. The gravest thing is that the openness toward homosexuality has become routine…

There are people who support them based on [the belief in] individual freedom, and they have accounts on Facebook and pages on social media… They are a disgrace to society and religion, to values and to the shari'a. Can we expect a law that will define the phenomenon as criminal and prevent it?"[9]

Al-Rai Columnist: Jordanian Society Rejects Indecent Behavior And Homosexuality

Another Al-Rai columnist, Ahmad Hasan Al Zu'bi, wrote: "The persistence of the band, that for the second time in a few months [has attempted to] hold a concert in Amman, is proof that this is indeed [part of an organized] venture and not just some fleeting young band that passes through town and presents its art – that is, to the extent that we agree that what it presents is actually art. This band has an objective that it aims to achieve by appealing to its audience – [young people] under the age of twenty...

"The messages on which the band's songs are based are [messages of] rebellion against values and religions and a call for overt and covert homosexuality. Some of the songs contain criticism of governments and regimes, in order to gain public and popular mass sympathy, so as to convey [its] other hidden messages… We are an Eastern, Arab society that still values virtue and opposes depravity. This society is vibrant and dignified, respects honorable art and respectable freedoms, and is opposed to [moral] degradation, indecent behavior, homosexuality, and men becoming effeminate."[10]

Jordanian Politician: Cultural Infiltration Is More Dangerous Than A Military Attack

In his column in the Al-Dustour daily, politician Rahil Muhammad Gharaibeh referred to the affair implicitly, writing: "At times we see [people] who go so far as to import indecent Western values that give rise to disgust and irritate the vast majority [among us]. In their hands art becomes a weapon to destroy national unity and the fabric of society. This diverts art from its dignified purpose, [namely] to preserve appropriate and considerate behavior in the public sphere, and infringes upon [the public's] liberty and collective will. It behooves us to know and understand well that ideological attacks and cultural infiltration are more dangerous and have much more impact than a military attack and political infiltration into human societies, [for] the secret of the survival [of societies] lies in their maintaining their cultural identity, their cultural history, and their value system."[11]

Salafi Sheikh On Facebook: This Is A Band Of Five Pervert Devil-Worshippers

The band also found itself under attack by conservative social media users. Salafi Sheikh Salim Bin Eid Al-Hilali wrote on his Facebook page: "Mashrou' Leila is a band of devil worshippers; a Lebanese rock band of five perverts who disseminate homosexuality and the abandonment of religions. A group of hypocrites who want to spread licentiousness among the believers try each year to bring this band to our pure land… in order to hold "red nights," nights of debauchery and licentiousness. This year they chose to conclude the month of Ramadan… with a promiscuous show by this band that spreads devil worship, but the pious among the proud Arab Muslim people were vigilant… and the will of the Jordanian public was heeded, and our honorable Interior Minister cancelled the show. May Allah protect the country of Jordan and its people from deviance from the straight path and from those who preach such deviance."[12]

Omar 'Arjani, a social media user from the city of Irbid, posted a photograph captioned "thank God" and wrote: "For those who don't know what Mashrou' Leila is – it is a band of young perverts who sing songs that include rude expressions and who wanted to perform in Jordan. The Interior Minister prevented them from doing this in order to avert the acts of violence that were likely to occur during their show, for it was assessed that the Jordanian people who adhere to their respectable traditions were likely to attack the performance. The last we need is for Allah to bury us alive because of a few perverts..."[13]


Omar 'Arjani's post

Opponents Of The Ban: This Is Religious Coercion And A Violation Of Individual Freedom

Former Information Minister: Canceling The Show Harms Jordanian Tourism And Economy

Conversely, liberal circles protested the cancelation of Mashrou' Leila's show. Former information minister Marwan Jum'a condemned the way it had been canceled after receiving all the necessary permits, and added that the Interior Minister's decision harmed individual freedoms, as well as the country's tourism and economy.[14] Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said that the minister's decision proves Jordan has no clear policy on freedom of artistic and cultural expression, and also proves that an outcry from a few strident voices is enough to make the government immediately capitulate to their demands.[15]

Educator: The Excuse Of Protecting "Public Sensibilities" Is Just A Means Of Imposing The Opinion Of The Religious Majority On Everyone In The Country

In her column in the Al-Ghad daily, Jordanian educator and writer Zulaikha Abu Risha examined the notion of consideration of "public sensibilities" that had been given as the reason for the show's cancellation. She wrote: "A lot of ink has been spilled [writing] about the suppression of individual freedoms in this country. The security [apparatuses] and authorities have disregarded these freedoms, which are protected by law, under various pretexts, sometimes under the pretext of 'the sanctity of Ramadan' and sometimes under the pretext of [considering] 'public sensibilities' regarding an individual's freedom to eat or fast [on Ramadan].[16] Since more than one progressive and enlightened writer has addressed these 'public sensibilities' and the requirement that enlightened people consider them... I saw fit to discuss this term... in order to expose the deception it involves and which, at its peak, has become tantamount to an attack on democracy and support for tyranny.

"So what are 'public sensibilities'? Writers have described them as a given society's feelings about and perceptions of certain issues, which others inside and outside that society must respect... The society that harbors these feelings sees itself as superior to all others, [both] societies and individuals, and [believes] that other societies and individuals must not engage in any public behavior that indicates a rejection of these feelings, which over time attain a status of sanctity... An example of this is the cancelation of Mashrou' Leila's show on the pretext that it is 'foreign to our customs and traditions,' or 'offends public sensibilities'... The discourse of public sensibilities conceals a tendency, usually unconscious, [to accept the] tyranny of religious circles or of the ideology or religion espoused by the majority [in society], [tyranny] which bans anyone who espouses a different religion, belief or artistic taste from the public sphere unless they refrain from overstepping the boundaries of the 'natural laws' that apply to everyone.

"It seems to me that these public sensibilities exist only in societies that Salafi [ideology] has permeated and where the [Muslim] Brotherhood has managed to take over important position of power... This reflects a fundamental flaw, namely that our democracy is false and superficial and that our elite – if I may make this generalization – is flawed in its awareness of individual and collective freedoms and does not realize that vague terms [like 'public sensibilities] conceal [the notion of a] religious state, [even if] they are circulated by people who are opposed in principle to a religious state."[17]

Social media users echoed the criticism regarding the curbing of freedom of expression and violation of individual freedoms, launching hashtags like "we want [Mashrou'] Leila in Amman" and "I support Mashrou' Leila." Poet Sally Bani-Hani wrote, "It's not about the launching of the [band's] album but about freedom of expression."[18] Twitter user Muhammad Al-Taher quoted Jordanian Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as saying that "countries must criminalize hate crimes against homosexuals and defend them." Muhammad Al-Taher added: "There needs to be a law to ban homophobic MPs."[19]


Muhammad Al-Taher's tweet

Liberal writer Basel Rafayeh also protested the cancelation of the concert and the branding of the band members as "perverts." "The [real] perverts," he wrote, "are terrorists who carry out 'jihad' by butchering people in the streets and in clubs and restaurants... It is their filthy ideology that should be cast down from a high place [apparently an allusion to ISIS's custom of executing homosexuals by throwing them from rooftops]."[20]


Basel Rafayeh's post

Mashrou' Leila: The Jordanian People Respect Cultural Pluralism; The Authorities' Decision Is Shameful, Encourages "Fanatical Conservatism"

Mashrou' Leila itself responded to the ban on its Facebook page, with posts in both Arabic and English which expressed sorrow over the cancellation of its show in Jordan for the second time and condemned the Jordanian authorities for the decision. The English post said: "...The inconsistency of the Jordanian authorities in this respect (inviting us, then banning, then cancelling the ban, then inviting us again, then banning us again - all within the course of 14 months) - has culminated in a clear message, that the Jordanian authorities do not intend to separate Jordan from the fanatical conservatism that has contributed in making the region increasingly toxic over the last decade.

"We are terribly disheartened and sorry for our audience that this is happening again. We were extremely excited to return and play our music to our audience, friends and families who live in Jordan, and have been our foremost advocates since the band’s conception. We are sorry for being forced to exclude Jordan from our tour in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, which will still go on as planned.

"Since all of this directly echoes the events of last year, we will reiterate our own statement from a year ago:

"An in-depth reading of the band’s stances and our songs reveals our interest in various social struggles, questioning the nature of freedom, and addressing various issues that we cannot ostrich ourselves from, be they oppression, censorship, gun control, sexual repression, the patriarchal oppression of both men and women, or the difficulty of just being, when being is in a society that constantly extinguishes our aspirations…..Saying that the band must be banned from playing in Jordan because our songs address themes of sexuality, homosexuality or support righteous democratic protests against social or political problems, is essentially saying that any artist addressing basic human rights through their work should be banned. This is a rather hostile approach towards human rights and democratic processes.

"Furthermore, pretending that these oppressive decisions are necessary under the guise of protecting 'Jordanian customs and traditions' frames said traditions in a horribly regressive light. This is a misrepresentation of the people of Jordan, who we know are progressive supporters of human rights, and who respect intellectual and cultural pluralism.

"One has only to look at the reaction of the Jordanian people to the cancellation, to see that the notion of a singular, homogeneous society that shares these 'customs, and traditions,' does not seem to apply to Jordanian people, much as it cannot apply to anyone and anywhere else. Most importantly, the vile and absurdly fallacious smear campaign led by the Jordanian media and somehow supported by certain members of the Jordanian government, continues to go un-reprimanded, as though publishing defamatory imputations in the media to score some sort of petty 'victory' against free speech were not 'at odds with Jordanian customs and traditions.'

"On a more personal note, over the last 3 years of playing in Europe and the Americas, we have repeatedly leveraged our position in the public eye to be particularly vocal about defending the Arab and Islamic community in the face of US and European aggression, misrepresentation, and stereotyping.

"It is disheartening to see a few members of that community trying to pit that very same community against us. We will not stop defending the Islamic community on account of this. Nor will we stop defending the LGBTIQ community on account of this. Nor will we change anything about how we go about making and performing our music. We are not afraid of the various death threats we’ve received... We refuse to be ashamed of supporting our queer band-mate. We are proud of our work. We are proud of our audience, as always. If anything, today we are ashamed of the decisions of the Jordanian authorities."[21]


The above image appeared with the Facebook post

Jordanian Interior Minister: The Jordanian Government Will Not Allow Activities By Homosexuals

Jordanian Interior Minister Ghaleb Al-Zu'bi's opposition to any public demonstration or expression of homosexuality is also evident in his decisive response to a query submitted this year by MP Dima Tahboub on behalf of her MB faction, about public activity by homosexuals.[22] Tahboub demanded to block access in Jordan to both the Arabic and English versions of My.Kali, a webzine of the LGBT community,[23] and also called to put a stop to events that the LGBT community is planning to organize in Jordan during 2018.[24]

The Interior Minister's July 16, 2017 letter in response to Tahboub's query stated: "The Jordanian state is very careful to respect the principles of the Islamic faith and the religion of Islam… [Jordan's] civil laws are consistent with the Islamic shari'a and with [societal] custom, which are the source of Jordanian legislation. Accordingly, Jordan has not ratified any convention or protocol that recognizes homosexuality or what is referred to as the LGBT community or granted them any kind of right… All the proposals of the homosexuals [to hold public events] are contrary to the religious laws and to public order. The government will not allow this group to hold any kind of activity or establish organizations or societies to represent it... It will not shirk from enforcing the law, from ensuring security and public order and from protecting the Arab and Islamic values and customs, virtue and morality. It will pursue all who transgress these and take legal action against them." Similar sentiments were expressed by Jordanian Justice Minister Awad Mashagbeh, in response to the same query.[25] In addition, in response to MP Tahboub's complaint, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered to block access to all sections of the My.Kali website to Jordanian internet users.[26]


The Interior Minister's and Justice Minister's letters (Source: albosala.com, august 6, 2017)

 

* Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

 

[1] Ammonnews.net, June 12, 2017.

[2] My.Kali comes out in Arabic and English. See medium.com/my-kali-magazine.

[3] Al-Ghad (Jordan), June 12, 2017; sawt-albalad.com, June 11, 2017; albosala.com, June 13, 2017.

[4] Facebook.com/mashrou'leila.com, June 13, 2017.

[5] Ammonnews.net, June 12, 2017.

[6] Al-Sabil (Jordan), June 12, 2017; Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), June 13, 2017.

[7] Ammonnews.net, June 13, 2017.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 13, 2017.

[9] Al-Rai (Jordan), June 14, 2017.

[10] Al-Rai (Jordan), June 15, 2017.

[11] Al-Dustour (Jordan), June 15, 2017.

[12] facebook.com/saleem.alhilaly, June 13, 2017.

[13] Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012952325297, June 14, 2017.

[14] Raialyoum.com, June 13, 2017.

[15] Ahdath24.com, June 13, 2017.

[17] Al-Ghad (Jordan), June 20, 2017.

[18] Twitter.com/Salaseelo1, June 12, 2017.

[19] Twitter.com/moe_taher, June 13, 2017.

[20] Facebook.com/basel.rafayeh. June 14, 2017.

[21] Facebook.com/mashrou3leila, June 13, 2017.

[22] Al-Sabil (Jordan), August 6, 2017; albosala.com, August 6, 2017.

[23] Ammonnews.net, July 31, 2017.

[24] In July, it was reported that social networks were posting an invitation to gay pride events, among them a parade, to be held in Jordan during 2018, without specifying exact dates or locations (Jo24.net, July 21, 2017).

[25] Albosala.com, August 6, 2017.

[26] Ammonnews.net, July 31, 2017.