Uproar over opera is but latest exhibit of hypersensitivity

What do a few mediocre cartoons and Mozart have in common?

If you guessed “the wrath of Muslim extremists,” then you’re the winner. As everyone knows, the freedom to express one’s views without inciting mass rioting came to a halt a year ago when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. The cartoons were, at best, insulting and shamefully generalized. For better or worse, they further exposed the problems that European countries have faced in incorporating Muslim immigrants into society, due in no small part to the underlying bigotry many Europeans harbor against these immigrants.

The riots that exploded across the Arab world in response to the cartoons were a bit more serious. The Norwegian embassy set on fire in Syria and the Americans killed by protestors in Afghanistan are a pair of examples. No one needs to be told twice that violence and murder are in a somewhat different ballpark than offensive art. As a Jew, my own favorite response came from Iran — that bastion of interfaith dialogue and tolerance — where Ayatollah Khomeini declared the cartoons a “Zionist conspiracy” and a newspaper started a contest for the best cartoon lampooning the Holocaust. (The results, mostly showing Jews profiting from their alleged myth of mass extermination, were as tired as the Danish cartoons, if equally painful to those targeted.)

A year later, Europe is trying a new tactic in the battle of freedom of expression versus religious extremism, and it’s not faring any better. Last week, the Deutsche Oper Berlin cancelled its new production of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because the staging included an effigy of the severed head of the prophet Muhammad, along with those of Buddha and Jesus. Kirstin Harms, the director of the company, said that she made the decision to cancel because she feared that Muslim extremists might target the opera company and its performers for attacks. It’s hard to blame her for looking out for the safety of her institution. Still, I’m sure that I’m not alone in my amazement that the legacy of the Danish cartoons has resulted in such hemming and hawing among proponents of secular Western culture. Just a few years ago, the phrase “If you don’t do it, then the terrorists win” was used in every possible context, from New Yorkers campaigning for a quick rebuilding of Ground Zero to a mother coercing her child into eating his broccoli. Now, the phrase’s vague threat seems to have somehow come true.

To be fair, I’m not really sure what the severed head of Muhammad is doing in “Idomeneo” anyway. As Mozart wrote it, the opera is set just after the Trojan War, centuries before Islam. The only religious figure featured prominently in the opera is Neptune, whose wrath at not receiving the human sacrifice intended for him might make him a more appropriate butt of cartoon satire. But if the Deutsche Oper wanted to spark controversy by insulting iconic religious figures in addition to Neptune, at least they were evenhanded about it. Like the Yale Record’s parody of the Blue Book, the Berlin opera’s approach to risky insults seems to be to target all groups equally (although Moses doesn’t make an appearance, which Khomeini might take as his cue to accuse Germany of aiding Zionist conspiracies). In this way, the opera’s bold staging becomes a criticism of organized religion in general, a far cry from the Danish newspaper’s focused attacks.

Still, there is a serious problem when artists, whose job it is to challenge a society’s common perceptions and assumptions, are held accountable to uphold a specific set of beliefs that they themselves don’t share. For many Muslim protestors of the cartoons, the offense was not simply that Muhammad was depicted in an insulting way intended to ridicule Islam, but that he was depicted at all. The expectation that secular Western artists should respect the religious laws of a different group is, at the very least, naive. Adherence to the regulations of another religion has nothing to do with respect between faiths and should never be a prerequisite for peaceful inter-religious relations. As an adamant believer in artistic freedom — not to mention as a Mozart fan — it is my greatest hope that the German production of “Idomeneo” will be performed; even in our sinister age, the show must go on.

Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

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