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Slippery Slope

September 27, 2006

Worried about possible Islamic hostility, the Deutsche Oper wiped its rendition of Mozart's "Idomeneo" from its current season. DW's Marcel Fürstenau says the move is a sign of a greater social trend.


The artistic director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, Kirsten Harms, has cancelled a performance of the Mozart opera "Idomeneo" that is critical of religion. The reason: She could not rule out that such a production would represent a danger for employees of the opera, or the public.

These fears are based on a danger-analysis done by the state criminal police. The analysis was carried out upon request of the state interior minister. According to the report, the opera – which was already performed three years ago, without fanfare – represented an "incalculable risk."

Jesus, Buddah, Mohammed -- and Poseidon

If this supposition is true, then it is because Muslims could feel that their religious feelings were hurt or insulted. But above and beyond the acknowledgement that it is regrettable to insult anyone's religion, many questions come to mind in this instance: Will Muslims' feelings really be hurt? What about Christians? Buddhists? And what about people who believe in Greek mythology?

After all, the whole ruckus here is based on an interpretation of the opera "Idomeneo" by director Hans Neuenfels. He shows his relations to the role of religion and gods in a scene where the decapitated heads of Jesus, Buddah, Mohammed and Poseidon are set on chairs.

The scene is generally critical of religion, yet not in any way exclusively critical of, or hostile to, Islam. In other words, there is not the slightest reason to resort to self-censure of this nature, removing the opera from the season's program in a rush of overly hasty obedience. Anyone who chooses to make such a decision clearly has a disturbed relationship to art and the freedom of speech – the elixirs of an enlightened society. In fact, whoever shakes these foundations is encouraging radicals of all stripes to challenge democracy.

Social climate on view

Germany clearly already finds itself in such an atmosphere, at least to some extent. That's the only way to explain how an opera's artistic director could allow her artistic freedom to be curtailed by diffuse speculations over the possible response to a planned performance.

And on top of that, Harms did it of her own free will. According to the police, there were, and are, no concrete plans for actions or attacks due to the now-cancelled "Idomeneo" performance.

In the end, the whole issue comes down to a general, abstract description of the social climate in Germany that has existed since caricatures critical of Islam were published in a Danish newspaper.

Lack of courage?

If the Deutsche Oper decision is an indication of future behavior, then it spells the end of the artistic freedom and freedom of expression in Germany (even though the decision of the artistic director, who was looking out for the safety of her employees and the public, is certainly understandable on a human level.)

Three years ago, at the premiere of this particular production of "Idomeneo," no one would have given a thought to the opera's effects on Muslims. Seen thus, it is clear that the current situation in Berlin is a symptom of a lack of courage, a lack of self-confidence, and of fear. The lesson to be learned is this: Beware the slippery slope!

Marcel Fürstenau is a political correspondent for DW-RADIO in Berlin (jen).