A group of Lebanese activists chant slogans as they hold Arabic placards that read: "Freedom of expression," right, and "With Mashrou' Leila against the suppression of freedoms. 

© 2019 Bilal Hussein/AP Photo

When brand-recognition universities, like Northwestern, Yale, or NYU, choose to expand their reach and build campuses in countries that don’t guarantee academic freedom, they can run into problems with repressive laws. 

This week Northwestern announced that it was moving a talk by members of the band Mashrou’ Leila from its Doha campus to Chicago, citing security concerns. Mashrou’ Leila pushes the Middle-East envelope on issues of gender and sexuality and its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay. The band has been censored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and most recently, Lebanon.

Jon Yates, the director of media relations at Northwestern, told Human Rights Watch that the decision to move the talk to the home campus was a mutual one with the band and reiterated that Northwestern does not compromise on academic freedom.

Northwestern’s decision came after an uproar on social media in Qatar, where news of the band’s campus talk ignited online rhetoric on the familiar theme of “Western cultural imperialism.” The Qatar Foundation, a state-linked nonprofit organization, countered Northwestern’s reason for cancellation, saying the event was cancelled because of its conflict with Qatari laws and customs.

Qatar, which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is at pains to present itself as more open than its Gulf neighbors – it was embarrassed in 2018 by the extraordinary sight of the New York Times censored by the private publishing partner to remove LGBT-related content. 

Qatari officials have – in line with FIFA’s Human Rights Policy – guaranteed that “everyone is welcome” and that football players and fans will not be subject to discrimination despite the law that allows for punishing same-sex relations with one to three years in prison. This decision to temporarily suspend local norms has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the idea that same-sex desire and gender variance are a peculiar preoccupation of outsiders to the kingdom. That leaves Qatari people struggling to navigate their sexuality and gender identity in a repressive environment. 

Northwestern should use its considerable prestige in Qatar to enhance freedom of expression – which means encouraging free speech and upholding rights on both campuses.