Berlin Opera Flap Brings Cries of Self-Censorship

"The cancellation of four performances of a Mozart opera has reignited an anxious and heated debate in Europe over free speech, self-censorship and Islam," reports EITB, the Spanish news service.

"Debate" may not be the right word, because virtually nobody in the international online media supports the cancellation.

The story took off Tuesday when a Berlin opera troop took an avant-garde version of Mozart's "Idomeneo" off its schedule after a "risk analysis" produced by Germany's Office of Criminal Investigation concluded that "the possibility of performances being disrupted cannot be ruled out." In one scene, an actor brandishes severed heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon, leading to fears of violent protests.

The cancellation has inspired what PostGlobal blogger Thomas Kleine of Germany calls "unfamiliar unanimity," with German and British Muslims echoing the growing calls of numerous German officials for reinstatement of the performances.

"Here we go again," said Flemming Rose, culture editor of Denmark's Jyllands-Posten paper, which met a storm of Muslim protest after publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad last year.

"This is exactly the kind of self-censorship I and my newspaper have been warning against," he told

Rose said bowing to fears of a violent Muslim reaction would only worsen the problem: "You play into the hands of the radicals. You are telling them: your tactics are working. This is a victory for the radicals. It's weakening the moderate Muslims who are our allies in this battle of ideas."

Three leading European dailies denounced the decision, according to a BBC press survey.

The cancellation is so absurd said Die Presse in Vienna, that "even left-wing politicians, church officials who enthuse about dialogue and well-meaning multiculturalists" may have discovered the truth about "the so-called 'dialogue' between Islam and the West."

Such dialogue, said the centrist daily, is "an intellectual game of blackmail" in which representatives of Islam tell the West "what may and what must not be written, performed or drawn."

In Britain, the leftist Guardian said the cancellation was "simultaneously understandable and reprehensible... a dangerous act of self-censorship at odds with the principles of liberal democracy and artistic expression."

The scene at the heart of the (non)-controversy "is generally critical of religion, yet not in any way exclusively critical of, or hostile to, Islam," notes Marcel F├╝rstenau of the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle. "In other words, there is not the slightest reason to resort to self-censure of this nature," he wrote. "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 Spiegel Online, essayist Henryk M. Broder called the cancellation "a shocking example of pre-emptive surrender: At this point, it seems, terrorists don't even need to issue a specific threat in order to intimidate us."

So far, the discussion is almost entirely confined to the West. One Turkish Muslim leader welcomed the cancellation, according to Islam Online. Otherwise, the story has attracted news coverage in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, but generated little online commentary in the Muslim world.

On the question of whether the opera should be performed, the West seems to be having a debate with itself. And it looks like the show might go on.

By Jefferson Morley |  September 29, 2006; 10:25 AM ET  | Category:  Europe
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Honestly, Jefferson, don't you think you focus too much on these manufactured spats, which are generally cooked up by people on both sides who are trying to push a clash of civilisations?

Are all these Danish cartoons, Papal quotes, and Berlin operas really more significant in gauging world opinion than, say, the Iraq War?

That barely gets a mention here. But the foreign papers are full of it. In fact the average foreign citizen reads more about Iraq than the average American does.

Americans could usefully use their time by, say, learning to locate Iraq on a map.
Nov 2002 - The (National Geographic) society survey found that only about one in seven -- 13 percent -- of Americans between the age of 18 and 24, the prime age for military warriors, could find Iraq. The score was the same for Iran, an Iraqi neighbor.
May 2006 - After more than three years of combat and nearly 2,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map, a (National Geographic) study released Tuesday showed.

Instead they're spoon-fed these silly contrived media storms-in-a-teacup that only serve to feed fanaticism while maintaining ignorance.

Posted by: OD | September 29, 2006 11:54 AM

OD, it doesn't take an Einstein to read other English papers over the internet (try BBC for starters). So all of us can widen our global perspectives, if so inclined, of Iraq, Bush, Afgahanistan, NATO fears, etc. It is equally important though to get a sense of the small stuff like German fear for playing 250 year old Mozart music because of Mohammed's (and Jesus') killing. Or figuring out what happened in Denmark after some dumn Moslem drawings/jokes. Also read up on the latest finds of Moslem/Moroccan guilty convictions of 2004 killings in Madrid - yes, it was indeed to scare Spain from continuing its helping of USA in fighting in Iraq (yes, bin Laden, et all were succesfull - Spain chickened out). Detailed news about Iraq is always old news, everything has happened before (but not so bad then - true!). The real future of Islam vs Western World (primarily USA) often starts with the little things like, indeed this Mozart in Berlin evening. Also I just came back from Bande Aceh, Indonesia, and was actually somewhat scared of the anti-Americanism feelings there, eventhough we were trying to help the Tsunami victims (population in Aceh is 95% Moslem). All of that small stuff tells me a lot - this strict Islam hatred towards USA is getting stronger worldwide. This combined with the new "detainee" bill that the Senate plus Bush is pushing for is making us sink deeper and deeper into a big hole.

Posted by: Anagadir | September 29, 2006 12:48 PM

OD, one more (rather irrelevant)comment. I agree with you that many Americans don't know where Iraq is or for that matter Paradise (Eden). About 2 years ago did some work in Hillah and Najaf, some 50 miles South of Baghdad and checked things out between the Euprath and Tigris Rivers. Back in the US proudly told my neighbors that I had seen Adam and Eves back yard. My neighbors got angry and told me that I was wrong and that all that stuff is somewhere near Atlanta and the Carolinas.

Posted by: Anagadir | September 29, 2006 01:06 PM

Because you have a right to do something, doesn't mean it is always a good idea to exercise that right. There is such a thing as good taste and respect for other peoples feelings.
At the beginning of the latest Intifada in the Israel/Palestinian conflict, I was looking for information on the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and happened on the Mosque of the same name. In reading the history of the "Noble Sancturary", I learned of Mohammed' "Night Visit" to Jerusalem, where he met, consulted, and prayed with Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets. The consultation part occured when He rose to heaven and sought their advice on how to approach God to learn the precepts of his faith. Aside from it's religious nature, it is a charming story which everyone would enjoy. However, when he returned to earth, he pronounced that the people of the books were good, and they should be respected. This is why, until the advent of the current conflict Jews were far safer in the Middle East, than in "Christian" Europe.
In reading this story, I finally understood why William Walwyn,a member of the English Leveller movement, so admired Mohammed. The Levellers were active during the English Civil War and pushed for religious freedom. Out of that movement came the Society of Friends or the Quakers. Their ideas would result in the Bill of Right and the 1st Admentment that protects our religious freedom.
However, as an American, I found in Mohammed's remarks a kindred spirit, and I felt quite comfortable and pleased that Islam was in America. Bin Laden does not reflect the beliefs of all Muslims. We have a nut case that wanted to assassinate Chavez.

Posted by: P. J. Casey | September 29, 2006 01:50 PM

OD and P. J. Casey, I Could not agree more strongly.

Posted by: J | September 29, 2006 04:51 PM

Not to change the subject, but I think if someone from the Washington Post wants to write about self censorship, it should look in it's own back yard first. In the October 2 issue of Newsweek, The world read the headline "Losing Afghanistan" while US readers were given Annie Leibovitz's "My Life in Pictures". Why?

Posted by: TMT7 | September 29, 2006 05:26 PM

I totally agree with this decision. I am for the liberal values and support freedom of expression and am totally against censorship. However, today's world faces a dramatic challenge. Rising imbalance of income and fragile inter-cultural dialogue terrorize the innocent people. Sometimes, small issues such as a cartoon or an opera could cause giant problems...These could be handled if US and Israel followed a more cautious policy and Huntington did not gain support from some part of the international community. Besides, freedom of expression should go hand in hand with the other values such as respect to other cultures and therefore multiculturalism. Cancellation of an opera is not acceptable, however if Muslims are not pleased with Mohammed's severed head or his cartoon then the rest should give up to a certain level of the freedom of expression which is, to be honest, a Western value. Otherwise that would be the imposition of one over another. Let us be evaluating the issue from this perspective...Btw, i am a non-practicing Muslim from Turkey...

Posted by: Alper | September 29, 2006 06:38 PM

It seems to me that pre-emptive censorship is wrong. Not all persons who are labelled "catholic", "muslim", "jewish",
"sihk", etc. share the same opinion.

Radical reactions are merely that-why foreground such power? If people opt for violence, than the consequences are clear-in a society where human rights are the basis of a just and legal order-fear is the greater threat-not potential radical acts of violence.

The struggle for social, cultural, economic and political rights are indeed collective. The idea is to bring people in from the margins-not succumb to falsely construed barriers. That is what fuels extremism, in any religious community.

Posted by: KDJ | September 29, 2006 08:12 PM

Muslims are a bunch of lunatics. They should either be kicked back where they came from or exterminated.

Posted by: Purger | September 30, 2006 12:13 AM

Purger , you are funny...

KDJ, also think that way, if the opera was on and if Some muslims complained about it, the extremists would start protesting it around the world and would easily be convincing the not radical Muslims because of their overall dislike against the Westerners, or Americans, etc. In which way the extremists gain more power? By protesting an opera with thousands of people behind, or by getting pleased since the opera was cancelled? In the long run, i suppose the former...
I feel like extremists do not want you to fear but want to indicate that they are also powerful...And mass marchs and upheavals are the best way they show their power, inside and outside.

Posted by: Alper | September 30, 2006 04:50 AM

Would you rather go to the opera with Mark Foley or Albert Pirro?

Posted by: Reynolds | September 30, 2006 07:08 AM

The word "censorship" is misused in this debate. Censorship requires an outside party with the power to enforce silence, such as a government.

The issue here is restraint, which applies when the decision for silence is the actor's choice alone. Restraint may be motivated by laudable sensitivities, e.g. privacy issues, good taste issues, even financial issues.

What creates the problem under discussion, is restraint motivated by fear and threat.

If surrender to fear-induced restraint is rephrehensible, then the nature of the threat is immaterial, its mere existence is the key.

And I would say, for every instance of reprehensible self-restraint induced by threat of Muslim anger, there are a million instances of reprehensible self-restaint induced by threat of accusation of anti-semitism.

The irony is that these nations like Austria and Germany have criminalized words that stigmatize Jews, while no such protection is offered Muslims.

And nothing motivates righteous anger more quickly than the prejudice revealed by discriminatory laws.

Posted by: TimothyL | September 30, 2006 09:02 AM

Exactly. These European countries routinely pass bans on headscarves, but no-one dreams of banning other religions' garb - crosses, stars of David, skullcaps.

These are modern-day Nuremburg laws.

Posted by: OD | September 30, 2006 04:39 PM


Outside of France where are there bans on headscarves?

It is rediculous that cartoons or comments by the pope that no one bothered to try and understand could result in mortal violence. There is no reason why we should modify our behavior in response to such savage behavior. Those people are our enemies. They are anathema to everything good in our society.

Posted by: | October 1, 2006 11:58 AM


Outside of France where are there bans on headscarves?

It is rediculous that cartoons or comments by the pope that no one bothered to try and understand could result in mortal violence. There is no reason why we should modify our behavior in response to such savage behavior. Those people are our enemies. They are anathema to everything good in our society.

Posted by: | October 1, 2006 11:58 AM

@These are modern-day Nuremburg laws.
Posted by: OD | September 30, 2006 04:39 PM

You're putting this thing upsidedown. Hitler wanted the Jews to be recognizable. Right now the Arabs want to recognize themselves all over Europe tru their clothing and Europe says: no - look like anyone else! I couldn't care less except it's time that Arab women in Europe themselves are in control - put on a pair of jeans, T-Shirt, and date a non-Arab. I live in the USA and even here feel sorry for these women - Integration with others is a long ways of.

Posted by: Charlie/Chicago | October 1, 2006 03:49 PM

O.D et al. if you want to quote, make it right.

"Outside of France where are there bans on headscarves"
You never get to Paris, didn't you?

"These European countries routinely pass bans on headscarves, but no-one dreams of banning other religions' garb - crosses, stars of David, skullcaps."

There is no ban of "headscarves" in France, but all the "religions' garb", including crosses, stars of David, skullcaps, sikh turbans... are not allowed in classrooms for children under 18.

You do whatever you want outside.

Posted by: C. A | October 2, 2006 09:57 AM

Muslims are a bunch of lunatics. They should either be kicked back where they came from or exterminated.
Posted by: Purger | September 30, 2006 12:13 AM

Purger, don't get so emotional and be a little less shallow. I've met many Muslims all over and some are good and some are not. Same goes for Christians in, say, the Carolinas. In general though the intelligent Moslims seem to have a broader and more intense view of the world than say intelligent American Christians. Probably because Moslims, especially in the Middle East, seem to have more indepth and frequent interaction with different races, countries, languages, religions, histories, etc. - just a lot more worldwide common sense than smart but naive Americans who have lived for the past 10 generations in Atlanta or South Carolina or whatever. Well enough profound talk for one day.

Posted by: Schoolteacher | October 2, 2006 06:38 PM

And there is no parallel to censorship in Texas where an art teacher gets fired for taking children through a museum? Why are there art museums in Texas anyway? - talk about casting pearls before swine. So basically all religious sects, be they Muslims or Southern Baptists, feel that the rest of the world must conform to their own blinkered views of reality. Give me that old time religion ...

Posted by: texas-taliban | October 3, 2006 11:59 AM

Once you turn the terror faucet on it can't be turned off until the well is dry. The best part will be in the coming years, since sooner or later Islamofascists will acquire nuclear weapons. Israel, Europe, or the US will most likely be the receipient of these weapons.

Note to the Islamofascists, strike the US and Iran, Syria, and Pakistan will glow for generations, not counting countless occupations in most remaining Muslim countries.

Strike Israel and every Muslim country on the planet will glow brightly for many generations.

Threaten to strike Europe and you can loot a continent for generations and rule the UN as you see fit. In addition, you will strike fear in every moderate Muslim country on the planet who will surely surrender basic rights and freedoms for your mercy.

Posted by: Mart | October 4, 2006 09:11 PM

The discrimination against minorities has a very long history in the West. The Holocaust is a prime example.

The war to colonise hearts and minds of the Muslims has been underway for a long-time.

It is a part of a wider strategy to strengthen the Western hegemony in Asia. There is a continuous spate of propaganda against China's political, economic, and cultural affairs as a part of this strategy. Occasionally, India is also targeted.

The Western media fails to understand that the Asian continent has multicultural and multi-religious civilizations renowned for their rich and diverse culture. The war against Asia is doomed to fail. Hearts and minds of the Eastern people will never be colonised.

Read More ...

Posted by: Muhammad Azeem Akhter | October 6, 2006 04:47 PM

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