‘Muhammad’ opera is becoming test of how many concessions West should make
The German Government tried yesterday to defuse an international row that erupted after a nervous opera house called off a Mozart performance because it featured the decapitated head of the Prophet Muhammad.
The opera, Idomeneo, has become a test case of how far the West should go in making concessions to the Islamic world. The Deutsche Oper, one of Europe’s top opera houses, scrapped the production for fear of an Islamic backlash.
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The final scene shows the bloody heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the Interior Minister, speaking after a day of talks with Islamic leaders — scheduled long before the opera incident — said that the Mozart work should be staged.
“The Muslim representatives at the Islamic conference today agreed with me that the opera should be performed — and that we should go to see it together,” he said.
Earlier Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, cautioned that cancelling the opera would be an infringement of the basic right to free expression. “We must be alert that we don’t give in to our fears of potentially violent radicals,” she said. “Self-censorship out of fear is not acceptable.”
So far there has been no indication that the Muslim world would have reacted to the opera with the same fury with which it greeted the Danish publication of cartoons mocking Muhammad.
But sensitivities are raw in Germany after comments by Pope Benedict XVI seen as critical of Islam. During his recent German pilgrimage he condemned the practice of spreading religion through violence. This triggered an angry response from Muslims across much of the Middle East.
The decision to call off the performances of Idomeneo was made by Kerstin Harms, the director of the Deutsche Oper, after she read a security assessment by the Berlin police.
The report was drawn up after an anonymous tip-off from an opera-goer who saw the production in 2003. The informant told the police that the audience had reacted angrily to the sight of the decapitated head of Jesus but had slumped into an “ominous silence” when the blood-streaked head of Muhammad was held aloft.
Police saw this as a possible sign that performances could be disturbed by Islamic fanatics. Frau Harms calculated that the risk to the audience — 2,000 people can be accommodated in the opera house — and to the cast was too great.
Frau Harms has remained adamant that security was more important than the performance. But she received little support from her fellow artists or from the media.
Across the globe, she was accused of caving in to Muslim sensitivities. “Never in German culture has there been such a display of pre-emptive subservience,” said Der Standard, the Austrian daily. Other newspapers accused her directly of cowardice and surrendering Western cultural values. Her decision came on the eve of the Islamic summit in Berlin between German ministers, representatives of registered Islamic associations and independent Muslim writers and artists working in Germany. The aim was to reach a mutually acceptable definition of the limits of tolerance.
Herr Schäuble made plain that though the tone had been relaxed, there had been no significant breakthrough. “We made clear for our part that everyone who lives in Germany must respect our constitutional and legal order,” the minister said.
One conference sticking point was the reluctance to ban arranged marriages. “We’ve still got a long way to go before we can get the Muslim side to agree on our definition of the equality of women,” said Gu”nther Beckstein, the Bavarian interior minister.
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