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Mozart and Islam
Published September 30, 2006
Earlier this week, a leading German opera house stirred a fuss by pulling the plug on its planned production of Mozart's "Idomeneo." Officials decided that a scene in which the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad is placed on a stool, along with those of Jesus and Buddha, was too risky. They'd received an anonymous threat last month and, fearing the wrath of insulted Muslims, yanked the opera from their schedule.
That decision angered many Germans--and not just opera fans. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the country's top security official, called the decision "crazy." German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against "self-censorship out of fear." There were growing demands--including from some prominent German Muslim leaders--that the opera reinstate the performances.
Stung by the criticism, officials of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin announced Thursday that they may reinstate the production, if police can provide adequate security.
If there were some huge public event at stake--the Olympics, a political convention--the reaction would be swift and certain: We will not back down to terror threats. But it may be a series of smaller events--such as one scene in an opera in Germany--that determine if the modern world quietly buckles to the threat of terrorism.
No doubt the opera managers who made the decision were peering fearfully over their shoulders at what happened earlier this year, when some in the Muslim world reacted violently to a series of satirical and insulting cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI ignited similar fury over a speech in which he cited a historical reference to Islam as "evil and inhuman." Maybe the opera managers recall that author Salman Rushdie had to live under an Islamic death threat for years because of a book he wrote.
In the face of a threat, they asked the director to cut the scene. He rightly refused. So the opera was canceled. That was a terrible mistake. The point of the scene, after all, was not gratuitous; it was that "all the founders of religions were figures that didn't bring peace to the world," a lawyer for the director said.
Self-censorship to mollify those who would practice violence in the name of Islam is self-defeating. Canceling an opera--or any other public event--bolsters the radicals' belief that the West can be intimidated and eventually defeated.
It's understandable that Deutsche Oper felt a threat to the safety of its players and patrons. It looks now that it will respond in the best way possible, by confronting that threat rather than succumbing to it.
Art offends some people. Books offend some people. Music offends some people. Newspapers offend some people. People choose to read or not, to listen or not, to go to the opera or not. Those choices cannot be made for them by those who are intent on doing battle with Western culture.