Did Mashrou’ Leila Subvert the Sacred Profane Dichotomy?

Nélida Nassar 07.26.2019

Mashrou’ Leila’s concert scheduled for August 9 at the Byblos International Festival in Lebanon has created widespread controversy. The lead singer of this world famous group, Hamed Sinno, posted on his personal Facebook account an image many deem to be provocative, a photomontage created by an unknown artist in 2015. He says he shared the post privately with his friends – incidentally, there is no such a thing as a “private” post – on the Internet. The original source of the image is the site called “A Paper Bird,” where it illustrates an article entitled “sex, rights and the world.” (1)The visual consists of a Byzantine icon in which the Virgin Mary’s image is replaced by that of the sensationalist entertainer Madonna (image 1). Was the posting of the article and its pictorial selection innocent? Perhaps!

It is unclear who drew attention to this photomontage and for what purpose. More importantly, why all this unrest 4 years after its posting? Two explanations, however incomplete, can be proposed. First, religion (the sacred) and sex (the sinful/profane) are often paired in certain prominent marketing styles which are very influential in popular culture. Not surprisingly, this juxtaposition may produce a clash. Madonna, a globally recognized figure is not an accepted replacement for the Virgin Mary’s image in the collective consciousness of many. Second, this is especially true in Lebanon, where devotion to the Madona (the Virgin Mary) remains powerful for practicing and devout Christians and Muslims alike. The entertainer certainly does conjure for some an image of sex (the sinful), and for the last few days this image has provoked a political and social upheaval resulting in pressure from the church leaders from the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos and conservative social media to have Mashrou’ Leila’s concert cancelled. The initial reaction to the montage has been dismay and exasperation: how dare one profane the sacred in this way? Yet, a second look and an analysis of the linguistic re-contextualizing of the message, “Madonna and her fanboy I,” allow a note of humor to emerge. Hence, this seemingly dubious posting can be read as simply juvenile and trivial. But the question remains: Is it truly inoffensive?

Make no mistake the reaction to the posted photomontage represents only the icing on the cake. Several factors, some openly discussed and others left unsaid, have led to this squabble. Among them are Mashrou’ Leila’s strong and vocal support for the LGBT rights in the Middle East, a region that still suffers from societal intolerance generally, and a negative position on this issue in particular. The lyrics in Mashrou’ Leila’s music reflect the many social, religious and political faces and flaws of Lebanese society which are not addressed by mainstream Arabic music. While often incomprehensible and even inaudible, it is clear enough the group’s lyrics obliquely reference homosexuality and criticize fanaticism – and do so at a time when freedom of speech is being challenged in Lebanon and, indeed, worldwide.  

This article will attempt to decipher the visual impact of this particular derivative image and, at a more general level, explore the depiction of religion in secular advertising. How, in fact, is this message being perceived in a country deeply divided into 18 religious groups and many political affiliations, a country still recovering and mending itself from the consequences of a thirty-years of civil strife?

Like advertisers who frequently mine popular culture for creative inspiration, finding themes, characters, and visual references in movies, books, sports, fashion, and fads, Sinno, by posting the article with its religious art image transformed into pop art, re-appropriate both its visual plus its narrative. His gesture is not unlike the one adopted by American artist Richard Prince who has redefined the concepts of authorship, ownership, and aura. On its face value, it is a harmless act. Yet, the minute it was done Sinno knowingly or unknowingly claimed its authorship just like Prince. The complex transactions of representation have evolved into a unique signature filled with echoes of other signatures yet unquestionably becoming Sinno’s own.

Nowadays, both media and cultural trends appear to underlie this shift in tone in popular culture. Some advertising pundits and researchers contend that as the power of traditional advertising is waning, advertisers must increase the “volume” in order to break through and command attention. Secularization of religion might also be a factor in the broader appropriation of religious symbolism. One may argue that religion can sometimes provide advertisers – in this instance agnostic Sinno – with the fuel for shocking audiences. Here content analysis can try to determine what separates the uncontroversial from the offensive, with some additional examples from print, television, and Internet advertising. 

Historically, at times and in places where it was permitted by the Christian religion, depictions of gods and religious leaders have been made for centuries. In the introduction to his 20 Ads that Shook the World, James Twitchell (2) compares advertising to Renaissance art, noting that painters like Michelangelo did not always create what they wished to, but instead were usually told by a Church authority what to paint. The Sistine Chapel, from this perspective, is a giant example of Vatican advertising (image 2).

Closer to our time, the beguiling innocence of Xerox Corporation’s 1976 Brother Dominic (“It’s a miracle …”) (image 3) appears to have given way to more daring approaches employing God, the devil, angels, exorcism, live births in nativity plays, and even darker undertones hinting at violence and pedophilia. 

No need, then, it would seem, to make such a big fuss about a religious appropriation, considering that a term unfamiliar to most people even a decade ago has become pervasive today. On the other hand, religious and cultural appropriation, loosely defined as the taking from another culture’s practices without consent, is currently so widespread that it is starting to encounter some pushback. Advertising can probably contribute to changing the way we experience religion. Is this good or bad? What is sacred? What will remain sacred in a world where religion becomes advertising and vice-versa? Will capitalism replace religion (if it hasn’t already done so)?

Did Sinno and Mashrou’ Leila inadvertently upset the supposedly universal sacred/profane dichotomy as defined by French sociologist Émile Durkheim? (3) In any case their undermining of the sacred in order to transform it into the profane triggered an urgently needed dialogue about larger issues we need to address. Surely, the selected image uses the sexualizing of religion to gain attention. Didn’t this controversy give the group unprecedented recognition and promotion conceivably is it an advertising stunt? 

I do not have answers to these questions, but I believe we shouldn’t dismiss religion in advertising as simply a “pop culture” phenomenon. Rather, we should try to understand what it says about our culture, our society, and our changing approach to what is sacred. This may, perhaps, help prepare us for what can happen next. After Toyota’s use of religion to sell cars in its 2018 Super Bowl commercial, (image 4) maybe we will soon have religious leaders using football to attract more believers. 

In his field theory, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (4) has argued that the advertising  industry  appropriates the religious field’s symbols. As the symbols “migrate” from one field to the other, the religious field progressively loses controls of its own symbols, and the boundaries between advertising and religion become increasingly blurred. In Lebanon – the land of many saints, and deeply rooted religious beliefs, practices and traditions – the migration of these symbols, as demonstrated by the reactions to Mashrou’ Leila’s image is far from proceeding smoothly. The current religious reactions and public outrage could even be interpreted as healthy resistance, figuring a debate well-worth having as long as it doesn’t become fanatical. 

Given Islam’s strong tradition of aniconism, could the Jyllands-Posten’s publication in Denmark of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (5), which led to protests around the world, including violent demonstrations and riots in some Muslim countries, have  simply slipped Sinno’s mind? Have Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics pushed the boundaries too hard, too far and too fast, offending the religious sensibilities of a large segment of the population in their own country and region? Should we see the entire episode as a parody of what would constitute as a real debate?

Does labelling the reactions surrounding it with terms like inquisition, obscurantism, discrimination, infringement of free speech and freedom of artistic expression give it much too much importance in the context of more fundamental concerns and problems? Is it more, say, a summer diversion? Is Lebanese society so ideologically rigid that it has lost its taste for satire? Or is subversion what’s needed to move the resolution of pressing issues forward? Mashrou’ Leila, a group well-practiced in controversies and which seems willing to pander to the prejudices of their audience, may be about to discover how it feels on the receiving end of the anger it has provoked. The verdict is still out but the music must go on! One thing is certain this challenging, provoking image has polarized the society in an unprecedented way, — may it be for the better!

Image 1: Photomontage
!mage 2: Sixtine Chapel
Image 3: Xerox Corporation Ad
Image 4: Toyota Ad https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwF3ipuNyfc

1. Paper Bird “sex, rights and the world.”:  https://paper-bird.net/tag/madonna/?fbclid=IwAR1F-c0y7hU1ZTx4j0bQp8o6DD_PrrVR_ZgcRW5ssBFIQBO_ghMNDr3BN4M
2.  20 Ads that Shook the World, James Twitchell: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twenty-ads-that-shook-the-world-james-twitchell/1111611904 
3. Émile Durkheim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred%E2%80%93profane_dichotomy
4.  Pierre Bourdieu: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_theory_(sociology)
5. Jyllands-Posten’s publication in Denmark of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons_controversy