By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Accustomed to generating controversy in their native Middle East with lyrics tackling love, sex and political apathy, members of Lebanese alt-rock band Mashrou’ Leila thought a summer U.S. tour would bring them a welcome respite.
Instead, as news spread on Sunday that an American man claiming allegiance to Islamic State had killed 49 people in a packed gay nightclub in Florida, the band found itself at the crossroads of tensions between the gay and Muslim communities, spilling out on social media and in online commentary.
Mashrou’ Leila has broken ground in the Arab world with an openly gay lead singer and stances espousing gender equality and sexual freedom. In doing so, the band embodies the two communities most shaken by Sunday’s shooting – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people targeted by the Orlando gunman, and Muslims who feel unfairly blamed for the violence perpetrated in the name of their religion.
“We come from a part of the world where I’ve always felt not accepted because of my sexuality,” Hamed Sinno, Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer, said in an interview on Monday.
Seeking out information in the hours after the attack, Sinno said he came across comments on social media that he felt sought to pit Muslims and gays against each other.
“By the time they even started getting the names of the victims out, the media had already spun it as this whole LGBT community versus Muslim community” phenomenon, he said. “So many of us are at the intersection of these two communities. Suddenly I felt excluded, I felt I wasn’t allowed to mourn.”
Sinno said the band had already experienced several brushes with anti-Muslim bias in its two weeks in the United States. An airport security guard told them that if Donald Trump won the presidency, “all of this is gonna change,” apparently referring to the Republican presidential candidate’s pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country if he is elected.
The band’s danceable tunes have earned them an avid global following but also condemnations from Arab leaders who say their lyrics go against the region’s traditional values. In April, Jordanian authorities banned the group from the country, band members said, though they later relented after an international outcry.
One song, “Shim el-Yasmine,” describes Sinno’s desire to introduce his male lover to his parents, while “Lil Watan” skewers political apathy in the Middle East.
It is wrong-headed to blame Sunday’s attack on Islam, said Sinno, a U.S. citizen. The FBI said the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, called during the massacre to pledge allegiance to Islamic State, the jihadist group that later claimed responsibility for the attack.
But the depth of Mateen’s commitment to Islamic State was unclear. His father said the attack was not motivated by religion and suggested it was rather his son’s anti-gay sentiments.
“The issue is not Islam more than any other religion,” Sinno said. “Most of the attacks that happen against the queer community in the U.S. are not by Muslims, they’re by Christian fanatics.”
In front of a sold-out crowd on Monday night at the Hamilton venue in downtown Washington, D.C., the band briefly addressed the tragedy, the worst mass shooting in modern American history. Staff at the Hamilton said they decided to up security measures following Sunday’s attack, and patrons and their bags were carefully screened before entering the concert.
“There are a bunch of us who are queer, who feel assaulted by that attack who can’t mourn because we’re also from Muslim families, and we exist,” Sinno said to cheers from the crowd, before the band launched into the next song.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Frank McGurty and Cynthia Osterman)