The World from Berlin The Great Western Kowtow

Democracy is in danger. Westerners are soft and weak in the face of danger. Germany is risk averse. That, at least, is what the country's political leaders seem to be saying after the Deutsche Oper cancelled a potentially controversial opera.

Earlier this summer, Kirstin Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, was on vacation when she received a phone call from Berlin's Interior Secretary Dr. Ehrhart Körting of the Social Democratic Party. He was calling to say that he had been warned by the state Office of Criminal Investigation that a Hans Neuenfels production of Mozart's "Idomeneo," which was scheduled for revival in November, could pose an unspecified security threat to the opera house and its public. The reason is a scene in the piece that depicts the decapitated head of the Prophet Muhammad (along with those of Christ, Buddha, and Poseidon), which could possibly incite some Islamic zealots to violence.

Harms, in August, decided to cancel the production, instead substituting Verdi's less controversial "La Traviata" and Mozart's "Le Nozze Di Figaro." Instinctively, she knew this decision had to be kept quiet, and she managed to keep a lid on it. At first.

It was only recently that the affair exploded into the public realm,  when information about the authorities' concerns over the controversial scene was leaked to the press. Since then, Harms has consistently been under fire by an overwhelming majority of voices declaring that her decision constituted a cowardly affront to the fundamental Western principles of freedom of expression and integrity of the arts. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken Harms to task.

On Thursday, the uproar showed no signs of abating with German commentators seemingly relieved to finally have an issue to sink their quills into  after a summer of relative quiet. Even better for the editorialists, the story erupted on the eve of a major conference in Berlin to discuss the integration of Germany's Muslim minority.

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung detects a hint of hysteria in the modern debate on Islamic integration and cooperation. The paper takes an erudite look back to the Middle Ages, "when Islam stood for everything foreign and hostile," and goes on to say that relations between the West and its Islamic counterparts did not much improve during the Enlightenment era, either. The paper refers to Samuel Huntington's notion of the "clash of cultures," an idea that is like "a tumor establishing itself in our heads," beginning with the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that "shattered America's ego and belief in its own invincibility." The newspaper opines that Harms' decision to lay off the "Idomeneo" production follows the logic of a "self-imposed revocation of freedom" and "appeasement," and concludes that "it is not the image that is decisive, but rather the message -- this much rationality of debate must be possible in an enlightened and secularized society."

Financial Times Deutschalnd agrees that the decision to cancel the opera was fundamentally flawed, but also points out that the universal outcry on behalf of artistic freedom resembles a "ghost debate." Given that "nobody who jumps into the fray on behalf of freedom at this point has to face off with any protesting radicals," the newspaper writes, "the kowtow of which we are being warned is merely a kowtow to our own weaknesses, fears, and complacency." The daily wonders if, had there been a more serious threat to the opera house, it would still have been worth the cost and risk for the director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin to remain steadfast in staging the Neuenfels production. "Is artistic freedom worth this effort and risk?" the paper asks rhetorically, and then exclaims that "a free society's answer must be: Yes!"

The right-leaning daily Die Welt shares this view of society's responsibility and Harms' failure to uphold "that non-negotiable minimum, which finds real and simultaneously symbolic expression in the arts." The paper is surprised by the unanimous front comprised of politicians on all sides of the political spectrum, as well as artists, cultural representatives, and pundits alike. But unlike most commentators, some of whom have decried the director of Berlin's largest opera house as a "coward," the paper gives Kirstin Harms the benefit of the doubt, speculating that "the decision couldn't have been easy" for her and that "it was with a heavy heart" that she erred on behalf of security. Nonetheless, the paper explains, our democratic instinct tells us that "quietly, and surely without malice, its freedom has been betrayed." Die Welt calls on its readers to take this occasion to consider whether the "German and European […] cultural self-esteem is perhaps stronger than we often think."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is one of the few commentators to pay more attention to the Islamic conference in Berlin than to the opera scandal, two issues that now seem closely related. The paper praised Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble for addressing the issue of Germany's Muslim population head-on, but at the same time criticizes him for being somewhat "clueless" on the critical question of their cultural integration into German society. The FAZ reports that Schäuble is only able to formulate questions on the matter, but has yet to come up with any satisfactory answers. The paper ponders Schäuble's claim that "'Muslims in Germany should be able to feel like German Muslims; as citizens of a religiously neutral, but not religion-free, constitutional state, they should be immune to the temptations and meanders of terrorist extremists." Concerning the fear of terrorism and the related "Idomeneo" scandal, the paper seems to wag its finger at the media hysteria that has erupted. "Now everyone knows: one should react calmly and level-headed to this sort of thing."

-- Charles Hawley, 2:40 p.m. CET

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