It doesn’t take much to stir up a controversy in Egypt. The combination of a repressive government keen to exploit any scandal that will detract from its own failings and a small but vocal band of perpetually outraged Islamists – plus a pliant press keen to give the latter as much publicity as possible – and you’ve got a perfect storm ready for any international celebrity to walk right into. Enter Elton John, who had been planning to perform a private concert in Egypt later this month, until some of his recent observations on Christ and homosexuality came to light. These included the claim that Jesus – revered by Muslims as a prophet – was a “super-intelligent gay man”, an argument that organised religion should be banned for “turning hatred towards gay people”, and the suggestion that a gay woman in the Middle East is “as good as dead”.
Unsurprisingly, these opinions failed to endear openly gay Elton to the head of the Egyptian Musicians’ Union, Mounir Al-Wasimi, who promptly announced that all foreign artists needed his permission to perform in Egypt, and that in Elton’s case permission would not be granted. ”How do we allow a homosexual who wants to ban religions, claimed that the prophet Eissa [Jesus] was gay and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom?” thundered Al-Wasimi this week. Coordination with security bodies is now underway to ensure the planned gig, which was to be sponsored by telecommunications giant Etisalat, will not go ahead. Although it’s unlikely that Mr John is planning to sneak in to the country.
Elton joins a star-studded list of singers whose attempts to perform in Egypt, successful or otherwise, have raised the shackles of religious conservatives. In 2007 Shakira performed her trademark “Hips Don’t Lie” song in the shadow of the Giza pyramids; last year Beyonce’s show in the luxury Red Sea resort of Port Ghalib was denounced by a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian as an “insolent sex party”.
But it’s not just modern pop stars who can cause a stir. Last week a group of lawyers launched an obscenity case against the Arabic folk epic “One Thousand and One Nights”, accusing it of being an offence to public decency. Meanwhile, on the streets of Cairo reaction to Elton John’s banning remains split. “I have no problem with Elton John’s religious views – he can think what he wants,” one 43-year-old lawyer told local media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm. “But I don’t recommend publicly foisting homosexuals on Egypt’s next generation.”
Others disagreed. “People are taking political stands merely for propaganda reasons and for personal benefit,” countered Amal Farah, a writer of children’s books. “Most artists are morally corrupt,” added Dina Samir, a 29-year-old communications manager. “But we don’t have the right to judge their personal lives.”