Indignation erupted across Germany’s political spectrum on Tuesday after a renowned opera house said it had dropped a controversial production of Mozart’s Idomeneo from its programme because it feared becoming a target of Islamist extremists.
Wolfgang Schäuble, interior minister, attacked the decision by Berlin’s Deutsche Oper not to show the 200-year-old work as “crazy”, “ridiculous” and “unacceptable”.
Bernd Neumann, culture minister, said it showed “the democratic culture of free speech is in danger”.
The uproar threatens to dominate the government’s first conference on Islam, which Mr Schäuble opens on Thursday. Berlin wants the gathering of politicians and community leaders to develop into a permanent advisory body on Christian-Muslim relations.
The cancellation was prompted by concerns that a scene in which Mohammed’s severed head is brandished on stage could be viewed as blasphemous.
It follows angry reactions around the Islamic world to a lecture by Pope Benedict XVI two weeks ago, in which he drew a link between Islam and violence.
Equally vociferous counter-reactions in Germany highlighted mounting fears that the country’s postwar culture of secularism, tolerance and democracy may be under attack from the very minorities that have thrived under its protection.
Unlikely bedfellows have been united in protest at Deutsche Oper’s decision. Conservative MPs from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party found themselves agreeing with Dieter Wiefelspütz, a Social Democratic security expert, calling the cancellation “a concession to terrorists” and a “shameful” move, respectively.
A retired German Muslim leader who asked not to be named said he was concerned.
“This is typically the kind of reaction that shapes this persecution complex among young Muslims when what we need is a policy of de-escalation.”
Muslim groups seemed unsure whether to welcome or deplore the decision. Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the Islamic Council, praised it as responsible.
But Kenan Kolat, head of the Turkish Community, said “one should never give in to threats”.
The case is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding the artistic treatment of Islam in secular societies. The uproars that have greeted such works as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper this year have inhibited mainstream artists’ willingness to tackle Islam and spawned defiant reactions.
At a hastily convened press conference on Tuesday, Kirsten Harms, the Oper’s artistic director, defended the cancellation of the 1781 opera, one of Mozart’s more sombre and experimental works, saying it was based on a warning about “unspecified threats” from the Berlin police.
Deutsche Oper’s production ends with Cretan king Idomeneo carrying the severed heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed.
The scene, added to the script by director Hans Neuenfels, is meant to symbolise the king’s estrangement from religion after he reneges on a vow to the gods, and was roundly booed at its Berlin premiere in 2003.