- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Europe found itself embroiled in yet another raging debate over faith and free speech yesterday as German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against “self-censorship” following the cancellation this week of a Mozart opera in Berlin that producers feared might offend Muslims.

Mrs. Merkel, an avid opera-goer, joined in the near-universal condemnation of Monday’s decision by the Deutsche Oper, one of Berlin’s three main opera houses, to cancel a planned revival of Mozart’s classic 1781 work “Idomeneo” because the production inserts a scene that displays the severed head of the prophet Muhammad.

Opera officials, citing warnings from German security officials, called off the production for fear it would incite violence among the country’s 3.2 million Muslims.

“We should watch that we don’t keep retreating for fear of radicals willing to employ violence,” Mrs. Merkel told the Neue Presse, a Hanover, Germany, newspaper. “Self-censorship based on fear is indefensible.”

The opera incident is just the latest in a string of cultural clashes that have bedeviled Europe in recent years, as the Continent’s liberal democracies have struggled to adjust politically and culturally to large and growing Muslim minorities in their midst.

Incidents range from the death sentence issued by Iranian Islamic clerics in 1989 issued against British author Salman Rushdie for a novel said to mock Muhammad to the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street by a Dutch-born Muslim radical after he made a movie criticizing the treatment of women in Islam.

London’s Tate Britain museum last year removed sculptor John Latham’s work “God is Great,” which included a Bible and a Koran torn in half, citing the “sensitive climate” in the days after the July subway bombings by young radical Muslims.

Rioting resulting in more than two dozen deaths broke out around the Islamic world earlier this year to protest the publication by a number of European newspapers of Danish caricatures of Muhammad. Germany itself has been roiled by the fallout from an address made by German-born Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month that quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor’s charges that Muhammad supported violence as a way to spread the faith.

The Danish editor who published the Muhammad cartoons a year ago told the Reuters news agency yesterday that the opera cancellation proved his point about Western self-censorship in the face of Islamist threats.

Bowing to such threats “plays into the hands of radicals,” said Flemming Rose of Copenhagen’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “You are telling them, ‘Your tactics are working.’”

The Berlin opera house cited the Danish cartoon crisis as one reason behind its decision.

Marcel Furstenau, political correspondent for Berlin’s DW Radio, said in a column published yesterday, “If the Deutsche Oper decision is an indication of future behavior, then it spells the end of artistic freedom and freedom of expression in Germany.”

But Deutsche Oper manager Kirsten Harms acknowledged that company had not received any concrete threats from Islamists or anyone else when it decided to scrub the “Idomeneo” production, which elicited protests but no violence when it was first staged in December 2003.

Director Hans Neuenfels in that production inserts a scene in which the severed heads of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha are displayed, saying his intention was to mock all traditional religions.

Ali Kizilkaya, the head of the German Islamic Council, said in a radio interview Tuesday that the sight of Muhammad’s severed head on stage “would certainly offend Muslims,” but other German Muslims opposed the opera house’s decision to cancel the show pre-emptively.

“It’s a pity they are scared of public discussion,” said Kenan Kolat, chairman of secular German lobby of ethnic Turks.

Thomas Flierl, Berlin’s top cultural official, said he planned to call together Islamic and Christian groups to draft a “freedom of speech consensus” to allow the opera to be staged as planned.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who called the cancellation “unacceptable” during a Washington visit earlier this week, said yesterday he had met with leaders of 15 German Islamic organizations at a previously planned summit. Not one, Mr. Schaeuble said, supported the decision to cancel the Mozart production.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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