The Music Says So: The Battle for Citizen Rights Will Be Won

The government of Jordan last week had banned a public performance by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, but this week reversed the decision and allowed the band to perform.

In one of the three great battles that have defined the Arab World in the past century or so, in one of them—freedom of expression and cultural pluralism—we can celebrate a small victory this week that needs to be replicated around the entire region. The government of Jordan last week had banned a public performance by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, but this week reversed the decision and allowed the band to perform.

This victory for freedom of expression and cultural pluralism is significant because it touches on the critical foundation of citizens expressing their views that we need to build in order to achieve the stable, prosperous, and humane societies we deserve across the Arab region. The three battles I mentioned have been the battle for genuine national sovereignty and self-determination in the face of colonial domination by foreign and regional powers; the battle for sustained and equitable national socio-economic development based on human endeavors and productive activities, rather than rentier economics and real estate speculation; and, the battle for citizen rights and freedoms in the face of subjugation by centralized and unaccountable state authorities.

Arab states, societies, economies, and individuals have all fared badly in these long-running contestations in large part because their citizens have never been fully allowed to express themselves, share in serious public policy-making, or peacefully challenge failed policies. The Jordanian government’s reversal of its original ban is a meaningful victory to be built on, because it affirms the right of citizens to enjoy a diversity of cultural, artistic, and political views. The band is popular across the Arab World in part due to the controversial social issues it tackles, including sexuality, religion, and political oppression.

Banning the band was an amateurish decision because every Jordanian and Arab citizen can listen to its music on their cell phones, computers, televisions, and even watches nowadays. So the ban not only politically oppresses citizen rights, it also reflects officials’ simplistic view of how the world actually operates today.

This decision also shows the power of social and political mobilization that can pressure officials to reverse their occasional silly decisions. The outcry against the ban was swift and widespread across Arab societies, mostly on social media. It expanded the audience for Mashrou’ Leila’s music, rather than reduced it, and made the Jordanian government appear to be boorish and brutish, which is not the case in the majority of instances (as also evidenced by the quick reversal of the ban by the Ministry of Interior, presumably because some higher and more sensible authority intervened).

This incident should spark a wider debate about the mechanisms Arab governments have used for decades to control the minds, sentiments, values, and views of their fellow semi-citizens, i.e., nationals who have only partial citizenship rights that are concentrated mainly in materialism and consumerism, speculative investments, and the right to emigrate, without meaningful political capacity to share in decision-making or hold power accountable.

Arab states for many decades have used existing laws to ban public speeches, rallies, books, plays, and other forms of expression if they challenge or differ from prevailing social or political norms. The exact definition of those norms is left to the discretion of individuals in senior positions, leading to whimsical and inconsistent interpretation of the laws. In practice, any Arab government can ban, fine, or jail any person or group simply by claiming their ideas inflame tensions, damage national unity, endanger social calm, offend religious and social sensibilities, or just irritate senior officials and their friends.

This ban was based on the concert’s being, “at odds with the ‘authenticity’ of the venue,” in the Tourism Ministry’s words, and, in the band’s view on Facebook, because of, “our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.”

Amman Governor Khaled Abu Zeid later confirmed the ban was due to, “religious and social reasons, and because what the band offers contradicts the values of Islam and Christianity. … There are lyrics about religion in the songs that violate traditions and norms.”

Islam and Christianity seem pretty strong phenomena to me that cannot be dented by a musical performance that brings joy to many young Christians and Muslims across the world. These great religions, along with Judaism, reflect Abrahamic values whose foundations comprise justice, equality, tolerance, respect, learning, and the capacity to develop one’s personal talents to the maximum possible extent that is set by the divine process itself. So let us learn from this incident to plug in those amps, raise the volume, rock on, sing, dance, build libraries, open minds, respect all faiths, hug our neighbor, and love our country—assuming our country gives us the opportunity to do all this. This will happen one day soon across the Arab World when this critical battle of our past erratic century is finally won. Jordan shows us once again the mature behavior that can allow this to happen, along with the amateur governance constraints that still hobble us.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global