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Tue. October 04, 2022
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Western Civilization: Back on Stage by Popular Demand
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Idomeneo is back. The Deutsche Oper Berlin has decided to reinstate the production of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo which it cancelled in a mindless (headless?) decision last month, over the ‘potential possibility’ of protests by radical Muslims. The last scene of the opera as dramatized by director Hans Neuenfels, was thought risqué because it depicted the decapitated heads of four religious figures (among them Mohammed). Kirsten Harms, the opera house’s general manager had received a very vague but ominously worded “threat analysis” from the state police agency and decided on her own not to put her staff and patrons in any – potential – harm’s way. She wanted to drop the production preemptively and quietly, but it didn’t work out as intended. Harms’ decision was front-page news worldwide. Trying to avoid politics, Kirsten Harms made a very, invariably, political decision. Unwittingly she served the public a symbol of our post-modern fear, apprehension, and incomprehension of all things Islamic. A dark, nebulous fear of an equally amorphous threat that seemingly invades every aspect of our lives like a cruel vapor. Soon the headlines were along the lines of “For Fear of Offense, “Western Civilization” Will be Cancelled Tonight” and public figures – politicians, artists and cultural administrators – condemned the decision by Mrs. Harms, disagreeing only about the division of blame between Mrs. Harms and the police agency that issued its silly “Threat Analysis”. Rightly so. Dropping Idomeneo would have amounted to pre-emptive self-censorship, presuming social calm can be achieved by curbing freedom of speech and artistic expression. We will mutilate our own liberties and values for fear that others would do it for us. That Idomeneo would be put back on the schedule was a foregone conclusion after the public outcry. Not the least because the (unintentional?) publicity now guarantees a sold out house for the entire run. But how the Deutsche Oper ever got to the point of cancelling the run of performances is still of interest. The world never changes so much as in our minds. Our (Western) fears and sensibilities have shifted dramatically and abruptly because of a handful of terrible, iconic events that have shaped our ‘psychological reality’ with only the slightest material shift in our lives. The ‘fear’ is the “Clash of Civilizations”-myth. The events for Europe were 9/11, the London Underground bombings, the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the violent reaction to the Danish “cartoon affair” and most recently the violent rhetoric aimed at an out-of-context quotation of a quotation of the Pope. These events had to infect our mindset sooner or later – and the Berlin Opera scandal was the first widely publicized manifestation thereof. The case is a departure from previous controversies, but it is their logical consequence. “Idomeneo,” the opera in question, is Mozart’s first operatic masterwork, composed in 1780. Idomeneo, King of Crete, must sacrifice his son to the god of the ocean, Poseidon (Neptune). Idomeneo won’t have it and defies the god. In the Neuenfels staging this defiance symbolizes a rejection of religion by Idomeneo: at the close of the opera he walks on stage and takes the severed heads of four religious figures (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Poseidon) out of a bag and places them on four chairs. Not particularly hair-raising, nor much noted at the premiere in 2003. Now, in 2006 and in the wake of widespread smoldering resentment in Muslim communities to Pope Benedict’s citation of a 14th century dialogue suggesting Islam (per se) might have a violent side, this nearly non-produced Idomeneo will be the hottest ticket. What makes this case so different from other real and imagined offenses bringing manifestations of outrage in the Muslim world is that Muslims were not even given the chance to be offended. The very possibility of offense being taken by radical elements was enough for the Deutsche Oper to cut the production. Noble sentiment? Not when you consider that Mr. Neuenfels’ staging is rather tame overall and in no way singles out, denigrates, or even addresses Muslims either in general or particular. Of course, the ultimate social calm is the calm of a dead civilization. A minority of German Muslim leaders has expressed satisfaction with the cancellation of Idomeneo but many German Muslims (indeed, Muslims worldwide) will be offended because they are presumed likely to produce a violent reaction. No such concern was expressed over Christians in the wake of Madonna’s self-crucifixion in her current touring production (indeed Germany thought about censorship and said ‘no’). Now westerners can fume angrily over “Muslim reactions” that never even get to happen! Although Kirsten Harms draws the accusations (cowardice, appeasement), the plan to ‘kill’ Idomeneo was and still is in microcosm the many-tentacled threat the Muslim world has become for us. Are we really so afraid of words, images, ideas and rational dialogue that we will abandon reason for the presumption of fear, putting conflict-avoidance ahead of truth? Then send in the barbarians—the gate is wide open. Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations. George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.

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