Northwestern in Qatar cancels Mashrou’ Leila talk after backlash

University moves event with Lebanese indie pop band to US after anti-gay backlash prompts ‘safety concerns’.

Hamed Sinno (R), lead singer of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou'' Leila
Hamed Sinno (R) is the lead singer of Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou' Leila [File: Shadi Bushra/Reuters]

Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) has cancelled an event featuring a high-profile Lebanese pop band after an online backlash triggered “safety concerns”, according to the university’s spokesperson.

Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay, was scheduled to participate in a talk about “media revolutions in the Middle East” at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha on Tuesday.

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But earlier this week, the university announced it had “mutually” agreed with the band’s members to move the event to its Evanston campus in the US state of Illinois, the home base of the university. 

“The decision was made out of an abundance of caution due to several factors, including safety concerns for the band and our community,” Jon Yates, director of media relations at the university, told Al Jazeera, without elaborating further.

Northwestern University (NU) in Qatar Mashrou' Leila
NU-Q released a statement after the event was moved to the US 

Yates said the university is “firmly committed to academic freedom in all facets of our enterprise”, and that the decision was made to ensure the band’s “ideas and art could be heard”.

A four-member indie pop band with an enormous fanbase, Mashrou’ Leila often references religion and sexuality in their lyrics, raising issues that few other high-profile artists in the Middle East have explored.

Though they were not invited to perform, Mashrou’ Leila’s talk has been cancelled by several other music festivals and concerts in the region due to their outspoken nature on topics including sectarianism, homophobia, and gender equality.

Twitter users in Qatar created an Arabic hashtag demanding the event be cancelled, with some accusing the band and NU-Q of encouraging views contrary to Qatari, as well as Islamic, values.

“I hope some state institutes stop taking the pulse of the Qatari street and testing Qatari society’s commitment to its beliefs, norms, and values,” a user said on Twitter, using the Arabic hashtag that translates into: We reject the Mashrou’ Leila lecture.

Another user said he reached out to Qatar Foundation (QF), the umbrella organisation that NU-Q falls under, to express his dismay.

“If they [the university] cannot stop it, this will be considered a blatant challenge to Qatari society from the university and a lack of respect for its [the community’s] principles and values, and a lack of respect for the values of Qatar Foundation,” he said. “It will be necessary (to revise these strategic partnerships) to respect this country, its values and its traditions.”

Some NU-Q students took to social media to express their disappointment about the cancellation, saying the decision was tantamount to self-censorship and undermining freedom of speech.

Source: Al Jazeera