It took the Catholic Church 359 years to revoke its condemnation of Galileo, but the current Pope needed only two days to distance himself from his quotation of a statement that remains topical despite being uttered 500 years ago. Piet Hein Donner, the former Dutch Minister of Justice, who has just resigned from her position, believes Islamic Shariah law could be legally introduced in Holland if two thirds of the Dutch population were to one day approve it. The London police has announced it will inform and consult with a board of Muslim community leaders the next time it plans an anti-terrorism operation that affects Muslims.
And now the Deutsche Oper in Berlin has taken Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" off its schedule after a "risk analysis" produced by Germany's Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) concluded that "the possibility of performances being disrupted cannot be ruled out." The opera is more than 200 years old. This performance was to be directed by Hans Neuenfels, and it featured Idomeneo, the King of Crete, stepping onto the stage with a bloody sack containing the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. In Neuenfels's production, Idomeneo produces the severed heads from the sack and holds them into the air triumphantly.
And voilà, yours truly –- a secular, atheist Jew –- feels insulted. I feel offended, a victim of discrimination and marginalization. Why is Moses's head not in the sack? Whence this refusal to acknowledge the existence of one of the world's major religions?
What am I to do? Run amok and set the opera on fire? Or is it enough for me to throw up in the foyer and express my discontent that way? Which brings us right to the issue at stake. We don't know who ordered, requested or initiated this "risk analysis." We don't know whether the LKA went into action on its own initiative or whether it was responding to a discrete warning. All that is certain is that there would have been no "risk analysis" if Idomeneo had chosen to slaughter only Poseidon, Buddha and Jesus –- leaving out Muhammad.
If we didn't already know it by the time of the recent scandal surrounding cartoons of Muhammad were published in a Dutch newspaper, that event confirmed to us that Muslims are especially sensitive when it comes to their prophet. We learned that their anger threshold is very low and that it's best not to overstep it. We also learned that they interpret the suggestion that they incline towards violence as a form of defamation –- one they like to respond to by burning flags and effigies, and by chanting "Kill Those Who Insult Islam!"
Representatives of other religions, of course, are a bit more relaxed when they become an object of ridicule or malice. No Catholic authority got upset when Cologne's Cardinal Meisner was represented as an inquisitor who burns women at the stake. German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn't send out any hit squads either when she became the object of sexist caricatures in Mainz.
But during this year's Carnival festivities –- a time when, traditionally, no taboo is respected as long as overstepping it raises a laugh – Cologne's famed carnival societies decided to take no risks and do without jokes about Islam and Muslims. And so the festivities remained untainted by violence.
It was no great loss for the freedom of opinion, but it was another step in the direction of preventive surrender. When it comes to cultural events -- as opposed to politics -- fear is a potent weapon. At this point, no specific threat of violence seems even to have been needed. One "risk analysis" was enough, and the citation of concrete facts wasn't necessary either. Fear takes care of the rest.
The case of the Deutsche Oper is spectacular. When something like this happens in some small town, no one gets upset, because it happens there every day. Cabaret artist Hans Scheibner writes regular features for the daily Schweriner Zeitung. The paper is owned by the Flensburg-based media group sh:z, which publishes 14 dailies in Germany's Schleswig-Holstein region. When the Muhammad caricatures published by various Western newspapers caused such a stir this spring, Scheibner wrote a feature that began: "No, really, my dear Muslims, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but our God here in the Christian West is much stronger than yours…" That was more than the Schweriner Zeitung thought its readers could take. The feature was never published.
When the Pope visited his hometown in Bavaria, Scheibner wrote a feature that was just as harmless. "In Bavaria, the Bavarians have rendered homage to their very own guru, who's always walking around in those funny clothes and with a smoking lantern in his hand." This feature wasn't published either: The editors decided it constituted an "insult to religious sentiment" before even a single Catholic had a chance to complain.
What's next? Hamburg Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, a liberal Catholic, isn't the only one who believes religious feelings shouldn't be hurt. If this attitude prevails, drama, art and literature will have a hard time in the future. Voltaire, Spinoza and Heine will be banned from the libraries. Even a drama as harmless as Lessing's "Nathan the Wise" could cause outrage. The play features a dialogue between a Christian, a Jewish and a Muslim character. But it doesn't present them as absolute equals.
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