- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Germany’s top security official yesterday sharply criticized a Berlin opera house’s cancellation of a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” for fear of Muslim reaction to a scene showing the severed head of the prophet Muhammad.

“We will tend to become crazy if we start forbidding Mozart in opera houses,” German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on a Washington visit, calling the cancellation an “unacceptable” violation of the principle of freedom of speech.

The Deutsche Opera, one of the capital’s three main opera houses, announced late Monday that it was scrubbing plans for a revival of a December 2003 production of the Mozart work.

The 1781 original told the tale of a king of Crete at the time of the Trojan War, but the production by director Hans Neuenfels inserts a scene in which the severed heads of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha are placed on chairs alongside the head of the Greek sea god Poseidon.

When Mr. Neuenfels refused to alter the production, Deutsche Opera manager Kirsten Harms said, she canceled plans for four new shows in November after receiving a warning from police.

“We were alerted by the police that all the press publicity surrounding the play would severely heighten the security risk to this opera,” she said at a Berlin press conference.

Opera house officials cited the violent reaction across the Muslim world earlier this year to the publication in several European newspapers of Danish political cartoons, which Islamic leaders say mocked Muhammad. Danish embassies and businesses were targeted and more than two dozen people died in the subsequent protests.

“We know the consequences of the conflict over the [Danish] caricatures,” Deutsche Opera said. “We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support.”

Berlin Police Chief Dieter Glietsch told a German radio interviewer that “one can find nothing wrong” in calling off the production “in a climate that’s already tense between Islam and the Western world.”

But Mr. Schaeuble, who oversees Germany’s police and legal systems, compared the cancellation to the furor generated by some Islamic leaders earlier this month in response to an address by German-born Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg.

In an aside, the pope in his talk cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who criticized Muhammad for promoting violence as a way to spread the faith.

Mr. Schaeuble said some Islamic leaders “tend to use anything to go crazy.” If Western officials and artists censor themselves for fear of the reaction of extremists, he added, “we will never convince anyone that freedom of speech and tolerance are a better way.”

Ali Kizilkaya, head of the German Islamic Council, welcomed the cancellation, saying the sight of Muhammad’s severed head on stage “would certainly offend Muslims.”

But, he added in a radio interview, “of course it is horrid that one has to be afraid. That is not the way to start a dialogue.”

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, federal Culture Minister Bernd Neumann and numerous other politicians criticized the opera house’s decision.

“If concern about possible protests already leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech is in danger,” Mr. Neumann said.

Peter Ramsauer, head of the conservative Christian Social Union party in Germany’s parliament, called the cancellation “naked fear of violence.”

“That’s nothing but pure cowardice,” he said.

Monika Griefahn, cultural spokeswoman for the leftist Social Democrats, said, “If we weigh security issues against artistic freedom, it makes me wonder if the fundamentalists haven’t already won.”

Mr. Schaeuble and other German leaders will attend a major summit today aimed at promoting dialogue with Germany’s 3.2 million Muslims.

• David Crossland contributed to this report from Berlin.

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