DOHA (Reuters) – An American university canceled an event at its Qatar campus featuring a prominent Middle East band whose singer is openly gay, after an online backlash in the conservative Gulf Arab state sparked safety concerns.
Members of Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila were scheduled to take part in a discussion about “media revolutions in the Middle East” at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus on Tuesday.
But after hostile online comments against Mashrou’ Leila’s appearance, Northwestern said it had mutually agreed with the band to move the event to its U.S. campus.
“The decision to relocate was made out of abundance of caution due to several factors, including safety concerns for the band and our community,” Northwestern’s Director of Media Relations Jon Yates told Reuters by email.
Yates said the university is committed to academic freedom both in Qatar and the United States, and that moving the event would ensure Mashrou’ Leila’s “ideas and art could be heard.”
The band’s management did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Mashrou’ Leila, which has garnered international acclaim for lyrics tackling sectarianism, gender equality and homophobia, has seen its events canceled elsewhere in the region following pressure from conservative groups. The band is a vocal supporter of equal rights for marginalised groups.
Critics used an Arabic hashtag on Twitter to demand the event be canceled, with some accusing Mashrou’ Leila and Northwestern of spreading views that are against Qatari and Islamic values. Others said they opposed same-sex relationships.
“This is against our cultural standards and societal norms,” one Twitter account posted.
Gay sex is punishable by jail in Qatar, which is the same in many Muslim-majority countries.
Though conservative, Qatar, a tiny gas-rich state ruled by a one-family absolute monarchy, is perceived as progressive by Gulf standards.
On social media, some criticised the decision to cancel the event as self-censorship and denying free speech. Others questioned the level of openness in the country that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai; Editing by Toby Chopra