Lebanon Redeems a Tradition of Freedom-- Court Exhonerates Khalife of All Charges

Al Jadid Staff

A Lebanese court has acquitted one of the Arab world's most popular singer-composers, Marcel Khalife, of offending Islam.

Khalife would have faced up to three years in prison if convicted. He was not in court in mid-December 1999 when the verdict was handed down by Judge Ghada Abu Karroum, who said there was no evidence the singer had tried to vilify the religion and instigate disdain for Islam. "He performed the song in such a way that does not violate the sanctity of the Koranic text," she said.

The lyrics, from a poem written by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, borrowed the words "I saw 11 stars and the sun and the moon, I saw them kneeling in prayer before me" from the Koran. In earlier court sessions, Khalife had said his intention with the song "I am Yousef, Oh Father," released in his 1995 album "Arabic Coffeepot," was to highlight the suffering of Palestinians, just as the biblical Joseph, suffered at the hands of his envious brothers.

The controversial trial sparked protests throughout the Arab world. Throughout the trial, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of the Palace of Justice chanting slogans and singing Khalife's songs. Politicians, lawyers and intellectuals also rallied to the singer's defense, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups expressed their concern.

Hailed by Lebanese intellectuals and free-speech advocates as a national victory, the verdict was seen as bolstering the movemens dedicated to safeguarding of individual liberties. George Assaf, a Lebanese civil rights attorney, told Lebanon's Daily Star that he predicted that "individuals and non-governmental organizations will pursue this matter so that this doesn't happen again."

Khalife's lawyer, Hassan Shamseddin, told reporters that "Marcel considers the court's decision an honor for justice and the Lebanese judiciary," adding that Khalife had expected to been found innocent. In the weeks before the court decision, Khalife decided to stop performing the controversial song "because he does not want to hurt the feelings of anyone," his attorney said.

But Khalife was distressed by the charges against him. He issued a statement expressing his sadness over the matter, as well as a "profound cultural shame and great disappointment for a country that indicts an artist on the dawn of a new century." He stated: "The accusation against me stems merely for relating passionately to a Koranic verse which opened my soul to vast horizons in ways no other text is capable of doing. I stand accused because I believed that the spirit of religion is more broad and tolerant than the interpretations by those who appoint themselves as guardians of our faith and morality. I also believed that inquisition courts were things of the past."

Hailing the court's decision as a "defeat of backwardness." the Lebanese Democratic Youth Union said in a statement "The just verdict is a victory for supporters of freedom, culture and art. It will be an incentive for us to continue our struggle for liberation and change." Throughout the court proceedings, college students had been Khalife's most visible supporters, most of whom expected the charges to be thrown out.

The charges stem from a complaint lodged in 1996 by Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in the country, but mediation from then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri defused the dispute, although charges were not dropped.

This article appeared in Vol. 5, no. 29 (Fall 1999). 
Copyright © 1999 by Al Jadid

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