Polemical, provocative and striking -- such is the nature of carnival parades in Germany. Last year, when 43-year-old Jacques Tilly was thinking of how to address the plight of women in Muslim countries, he followed his satirist's instinct. The float he designed? Four Muslim women in a row, each more covered than the last. At the end, a woman tied inside a large trash bag.
Jacques Tilly loves to test the limits. For some 13 years now, he and his team have built half the roughly 70 floats which take part in the Düsseldorf carnival parade. And he was particularly pleased with the Muslim women piece -- but the provocative proposal never made it off the drawing board.
Last year at this time, a wave of bloody protests was making its way through the Muslim world, triggered by a few cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. The protests were to reach their climax on Carnival Monday.
But even as commentators and satirists the world over were having a field day, carnival organizers in Germany were having second thoughts in the face of the growing Muslim outrage. Dozens had died in the protests, and millions come to the cities on the Rhine River to celebrate carnival. The jesters elected to step back in the face of violence: Jokes about Islam were banned.
"Peace Between Religions is an Illusion"
This year, though, Jacques Tilly has some catching up to do. "The clash of civilizations is still high up on the agenda of world politics," the artist says. And this time, it's fair game. On Feb. 19, Muslims will be fair game again.
"We're going to address the topic to be sure," Jürgen Rieck, director of the Düsseldorf Carnival Committee, says. Rieck says the intention is to "be clear" without going below the belt. "One of the floats is really great -- right on the edge," Tilly promises -- but refuses to say more. Strict secrecy is Düsseldorf's policy -- so none of the worriers can interfere.
Only one motif has become public to date: A Hamas militant and an orthodox Jew hug each other while a Shiite cleric and an Indian cuddle each other and an Indian and a Pakistani dance together. It's all too cuddly to be true Tilly, and the apparently conciliatory gestures are immediately unmasked: The display's motto is "Peace Between Religions --- The Greatest of Illusions."
Controversy is no stranger to carnival. In 2005, parade organizers were threatened by Catholics offended by a portrayal of conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner. He was shown preparing to burn a woman at the stake. The puppet of the woman featured the words: "I had an abortion." Last year, a George W. Bush float was banned. Members of Düsseldorf's city council had gotten wind of the motif and intervened.
And people in Düsseldorf couldn't resist alluding to the cartoon scandal entirely last year, concerns about security notwithstanding. One display showed jesters symbolically burying freedom of opinion: The coffin had been pierced by a scimitar. The display's criticism was directed not just at violent Muslim fundamentalists but at overly tolerant Westerners as well.
Down the road in Cologne, Muslim satire will be kept at a minimum again this year. The director of the Rose Monday parade in Cologne, Christoph Kuckelkorn, does admit that one display features a Torah, a Bible and a Koran whose peaceful co-existence is disturbed only by fundamentalists and terrorists. "But we're not injuring anyone's religious sentiments," he says -- before defending the decision in light of Cologne's traditionally live-and-let-live attitude.
Muhammad is missing
But he can't resist a friendly shot at his rivals in Düsseldorf. "No one pays any attention to that little town north of Cologne," Kuckelhorn says. "That's why it tries to attract attention by being provocative."
But Kuckelhorn's attempts -- unsuccessful so far -- to win Jacques Tilly for his own parade prove that he is a little jealous of the far more irreverent celebration in Düsseldorf. And of his attitude. "There has to be a real ruckus," Tilly says.