Fear Of Offending Islam Spurs Hot Debate In Europe

Mark Trevelyan and Mike Collett-White, Reuters, September 27, 2006

London—Four canceled performances of a Mozart opera have reignited an anxious and heated debate in Europe over free speech, self-censorship and Islam.

By canning its production of “Idomeneo”, fearful of security threats because of a scene that might offend Muslims, Berlin’s Deutsche Oper provoked front-page headlines across the continent and found itself fending off charges of cowardice.

The controversy centered on a scene in which King Idomeneo is shown on stage with the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad and the sea god Poseidon.

“Here we go again. It’s like deja vu . . . This is exactly the kind of self-censorship I and my newspaper have been warning against,” said Flemming Rose, culture editor of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten paper, which met a storm of Muslim protest after publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad last year.

He said bowing to fears of a violent Muslim reaction would only worsen the problem: “You play into the hands of the radicals. You are telling them: your tactics are working. This is a victory for the radicals. It’s weakening the moderate Muslims who are our allies in this battle of ideas.”

The drawings, including one showing Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, triggered violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world but were defended by the newspaper as an expression of free speech and a challenge to religious taboos.

Berlin security officials had warned that staging the opera “Idomeneo” would pose an “incalculable security risk”.

Guns And Bombs

The decision to cancel the production even before any protests had materialized was singled out for criticism.

“To do it in advance of any actual protest I think invokes the next protest, because the radicals in any community are aided and abetted by that,” said Lisa Appignanesi, a novelist and deputy president of the writers’ group PEN in England.

“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we don’t dare to speak up. What we do not want is a society where one is constantly fearful about what the people holding the bombs or the guns might say.”

European countries, rocked by a series of events including Islamist bombings in Madrid and London and widespread rioting in French immigrant communities last year, are struggling to find better ways of integrating their Muslim minorities.

The latest controversy follows a furor in the Muslim world over comments by Pope Benedict this month in which he cited a medieval emperor who associated Islam with violence. He has since distanced himself from the quotations and assured Muslims of his respect, although without directly apologizing.

Some analysts fear a climate is developing in which people are afraid to speak out publicly. In a speech to the annual conference of think-tank Oxford Analytica last week, its head, David Young, said political correctness posed a threat to free expression for journalists, politicians and academics alike.

Nirjay Mahindru, an Asian playwright who runs a theater company in Britain, told Reuters: “British Asian writers are without a shadow of a doubt not writing what they want to write about or what they feel is reflective of what is out there. They are writing what is now expected of them.”

“This has been going on for at least two or three years and it’s almost like a coalition of fundamentalist forces, whether they are Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whoever. I just wish more members of the artistic community would be brave.”

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Berlin—Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans on Wednesday not to bow to fears of Islamic violence after a Berlin opera house canceled a Mozart work over concerns some scenes could enrage Muslims and pose a security risk.

“I think the cancellation was a mistake. I think self-censorship does not help us against people who want to practise violence in the name of Islam,” she told reporters. “It makes no sense to retreat.”

Merkel’s comments, which echoed those of other senior German politicians, fueled a row over the cancellation of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” that overshadowed a government-sponsored conference to promote dialogue with the country’s 3.2 million Muslims.

Berlin’s Deutsche Oper said on Monday it had pulled performances of the opera, which features a scene depicting the severed heads of the Prophet Mohammad, Buddha and Jesus, after police warned it could pose an “incalculable” security risk.

The row comes two weeks after Pope Benedict enraged Muslims by quoting from a medieval text linking the spread of Islam to violence. Last year’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper triggered violent Muslim protests.

The opera, first performed in 1781, tells the story of Cretan king Idomeneo. The controversial scene was added by the director, Hans Neuenfels, and is a departure from the score.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters after the conference the participants were united in their call for the opera to restart performances of “Idomeneo.”

“To send a signal, we could all go to the performance together,” Schaeuble, who has no authority over the opera house, told reporters after the conference.

He said it was just as important to defend freedom of expression as to ban torture. “We must not blink. We must be self-confident enough to guard our freedoms,” he said.

Harmonious Debate

The meeting, which had 15 central and local government officials and an equal number of Muslim representatives, discussed issues such as equal rights, the building of mosques, Islam lessons and imam (prayer leader) training.

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Integration has become a priority for the government as concern grows about Islamic radicalisation across Europe and the emergence of an underclass of disillusioned young Muslims, mainly Turks, in Germany.

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