“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Tuesday and Thursday. Sign up here.
“She went upstairs with him, to his hotel room, she consented to kissing, and now she is accusing him of rape?”
This tweet was indicative of a common refrain on Arab social media as it grappled with the case of Moroccan singer and Arab pop star Saad Lamjarred. A French jury and three magistrates found the 37-year-old guilty of assaulting and raping a young woman at a luxury hotel in Paris while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. Lamjarred, who stood emotionless at the verdict reading, was sentenced to six years in prison, which he will serve in France. The crime occurred in 2016, but Lamjarred had been up until now protected by the impunity often provided to influential celebrities, along with a panoply of other factors, such as patriarchal norms, victim shaming and even a royal intervention, which was only recently revoked. The impunity appears to have run its course with the trial taking place outside the Middle East amid a changing global culture in a post-#MeToo world.
For readers unfamiliar with Saad Lamjarred, think of the North African equivalent to Harry Styles. He started out in 2007 as a contestant on “Super Star,” the Middle Eastern version of the famous reality singing competition series “Pop Idol.” The series, in addition to other reality shows, captivated Arab viewers at a time when political violence and instability rocked the region. The finalists on the shows became household names, even if temporarily.
Lamjarred emerged as runner-up that year but eclipsed the winner in star power and success. His vocal range and singing abilities were immaculate. With his down-to-earth attitude, playful, innocent good looks and remarkable dancing skills, Lamjarred was the whole package. His songs were immediate hits, with “Enta Maallem” becoming an international bestseller with more than 1 billion views on Youtube. His other songs averaged around 300 million views. He has been among the top 10 most-streamed singers in the Middle East for more than a decade, with more than 9.5 million listeners on Anghami, the region’s popular music streaming service. He frequently dominates the music charts, most recently only two months ago.
It wasn’t long before cracks appeared in his wholesome image, however. In 2010, during a trip to the U.S., Lamjarred allegedly assaulted a woman in Brooklyn, New York, and fled the country after posting bail. The case was eventually dropped after a settlement with the alleged victim. The news passed in the Middle East without creating a buzz and his career continued to grow but, in 2016, the French authorities arrested Lamjarred and charged him with the rape of a French woman. King Mohammed VI of Morocco intervened, appointing a legal team and covering all the legal expenses for the singer. Another woman accused Lamjarred of rape in 2017. By then, the pattern was impossible to ignore.
However, instead of widespread condemnation of Lamjarred, most commentary on social media either dismissed the charges or underplayed them. There were condemning voices, but they were drowned out by those that sided with Lamjarred, who had denied all charges against him, reflecting deep flaws in societal ideas around rape and consent. The condemning voices were often understood as representing cases where a woman is abducted and tied up against her will, whereas consent is given the second any kind of flirtation occurs. Rape was also highly associated with sexual desire, which led supporters of Lamjarred on social media to wonder why a rich, successful and handsome artist who had access to some of the most beautiful women in the world would need to force himself on anyone. His innocence was presumed without question, while the women involved were described as cunning and manipulative, seeking an opportunity to make money at the singer’s expense. The singer continued topping the charts.
The period between 2017 and 2020 was politically charged and complex in the region and elsewhere. The rise of the #MeToo movement had some limited impact on the Middle East and encouraged women to speak up against sexual harassment of all sorts. In Egypt, stories of sexual harassment and gender-based violence sparked public debate and outrage. In Lebanon, women became more vocal about exposing the harassment they encounter. The authorities were finally responding.
There was, however, another debate pertaining to France in particular. The controversies surrounding France’s questionable domestic policies related to freedom of speech and expression, particularly the crackdown on the hijab and the right to offend religion, created an intense dynamic in the Lamjarred case. Was the Moroccan singer a scapegoat for France’s attitudes towards Arabs, Muslims and immigrants from North Africa? Many seemed to believe so. These reactions echoed another rape allegations case taking place simultaneously in France, also involving a high-profile Muslim man. The Islamic scholar and philosopher Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, was facing multiple rape allegations in France. In 2019, Ramadan openly stated the accusations against him were based on increasing anti-Islam sentiments in France. As with Lamjarred, this explanation was believed by a significant number on social media. Ramadan was formally charged with the rape of at least two women in February 2020 and still awaits trial.
In 2019, Lamjarred performed in Saudi Arabia in front of a large crowd. He continued performing across the Middle East and even shared stages with different Arab pop stars who expressed solidarity with him against the accusations. During this time, he released several hit songs that topped all manner of streaming and viewing charts. It looked like Saad Lamjarred was safe and his career intact, at least with the trial still a few years away.
However, as incidents of sexual assault and violence against women in the Middle East increasingly made headlines, a second more powerful wave of #MeToo activism took over social media and, on some occasions, the streets. Feminist organizations in Egypt rallied against a scheduled performance by Lamjarred in Cairo in December 2020, creating the hashtag #WeDoNotWantSaad. The show was eventually canceled, and the singer’s continued attempts to perform in Egypt failed. Similar campaigns in Lebanon took place, with feminists from Morocco joining efforts to cancel Lamjarred’s live performances everywhere.
But for every activist criticizing and resisting the attempts to whitewash the singer’s past, there were legions of fans, male and female, in addition to Arab entertainers, who defended Lamjarred against the charges and continued to support him. This solidarity continues today despite the verdict in France. Several hashtags in Arabic, English and French trended for days expressing solidarity with the Moroccan singer. Artists like Maryam Hussein and Dunya Batma, both Moroccan women, rushed to his support via social media. Throughout the years, major artists like Haifa Wehbe and Elissa had openly expressed their solidarity with Lamjarred, though they have opted to not voice their opinion on the sentencing. The renowned sports journalist Mustafa Al-Agha stated his solidarity with Lamjarred, describing him as a kind and well-behaved young man who deserves support in a social media post where he shared a picture taken with Lamjarred’s family. The Lebanese singer Ziad Bourji stated that Lamjarred was a friend he would not abandon over a “mistake.”
The rejection of the verdict came under a variety of pretexts. For some, it made no sense that a woman who consented to escorting Lamjarred back to his hotel room could be raped. For others, it was merely a “mistake” that did not require such harsh punishment. For the majority of defenders, it was a clear and deliberate smear campaign that targeted the Moroccan singer for his roots and another example of France’s racism and discrimination against Muslims and immigrants.
In all cases, the urge to defend Lamjarred and underplay his actions showed the problematic attitude toward rape in a region that does little to prevent honor killings that target rape victims. Lamjarred’s fall from grace is that rare event in which an aggressor against women in the region is held publicly accountable and, instead of accepting the verdict and embracing justice for victims, a number of men and women in the region have opted to dabble in conspiracy theories and victim-shaming. It is too soon to assume that impunity for celebrities and influential people has ended, but Saad Lamjarred’s arrest and sentencing have caused enough of a stir for many to worry.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox