A leading German opera house has been condemned by senior politicians and security officials for its “crazy” decision to cancel a production featuring the severed head of Muhammad because of security concerns.
Deutsche Oper halted the production of Mozart’s Idomeneo after Berlin officials warned of an “incalculable risk” because of scenes dealing with Islam. The move has reignited the debate about free speech which was triggered in the row over published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper, told the Berliner Morgenpost that the Berlin state police had warned of a possible, although not certain, threat in regard to the production, which is scheduled for November.
She said that it would be in the best interests of the safety of the opera house, its employees and patrons to cancel the show, which will be replaced by The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata.
After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over the scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.
“We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Muhammad) caricatures,” the opera house said in a statement. “We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support.”
Ms Harms defended her decision saying that Ehrhart Koerting, Berlin’s top police official, had phoned her in mid-August and warned her of grave consequences if the opera house proceeded with its plan to show Idomeneo
“If I had paid no attention and something had happened, everyone would rightly say that I had ignored the warnings,” she said.
Police have said their concern was prompted by an anonymous phone call in June, but they had no evidence of a specific threat. Mr Koerting issued a statement confirming the conversation, but said that the decision to cancel had been Ms Harms’s alone.
This year, furious protests also erupted after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Those caricatures were then reprinted by dozens of newspapers and websites across Europe and elsewhere.
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Muhammad for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Wolfgang Schaeuble, Interior Minister and Germany’s top security official, condemned the decision, which came ahead of a conference on Islam planned for Wednesday to discuss ways of improving dialogue and integration with the country’s Muslim community.
“That is crazy,” he told reporters in Washington, where he was holding meetings with US officials. “This is unacceptable.”
Wolfgang Thierse, the Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, said that the decision to cancel highlighted a new threat to artistic expression in Germany.
“This is a very dangerous sign about fears of violence motivated by Islam in Germany,” he told the Reuters news agency. “Has it come so far that we must limit artistic expression? What will be next?”
Peter Ramsauer, head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in parliament, said the move pointed to a “naked fear of violence” and called it an act of “pure cowardice”.
Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s Mayor, said that “with all understanding for the concern about the security of spectators and performers, I consider the decision of the director to be wrong.”
He said: “Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived out on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them.”
Bernd Neumann, the federal government’s top cultural official, added that “problems cannot be solved by keeping silent.”
“When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered,” he said.
However, the leader of Germany’s Islamic Council welcomed the decision, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head “could certainly offend Muslims.”
“Nevertheless, of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid,” Ali Kizilkaya told Berlin’s Radio Multikulti. “That is not the right way to open dialogue.”
Berlin Police Chief Dieter Glietsch told Germany’s rbb radio that “one can find nothing wrong if, in a climate that’s already tense between Islam and the Western world, people avoid heating up the situation further through a scene that can, and perhaps even must, be taken as provocative by pious Muslims.”
The leader of Germany’s Turkish Community said that while he could understand how the production could be seen as offensive, he also encouraged Muslims living in the West to accept certain elements of its traditions, saying that an opera production was not equivalent to a political point of view.
“I would recommend Muslims learn to accept certain things,” Kenan Kolat told the online Netzeitung newspaper. “Art must remain free.”
About 3.2 million Muslims live in Germany, mainly Turks who arrived after the Second World War, many of whom contributed to the nation’s postwar economic boom.
Fears of Islamic radicalisation have increased recently, aggravated by a failed bomb attack on two German trains in July. Two Lebanese students have been arrested in relation to the plot.