I never thought this could be possible, but I agree with Angela Merkel. The Deutsche Oper should not have suspended its staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo because of the scene depicting the severed heads of the Buddha, the Greco-Roman god Neptune, Jesus, and prophet Muhammad (interestingly, Moses’ head was missing from the gruesome procession).
When the controversial Danish cartoons were published last year, I saw them as a symptom of rising Islamophobia in Europe, particularly as they appeared in a rightwing paper under a rightwing Danish government notorious for its hostility to religious and ethnic minorities. And when a few weeks ago the Pope quoted a Byzantine emperor equating the Muslim faith with evil and inhumanity, I wrote that this was unacceptable coming from the representative of the largest religious institution in the world.
Things are different this time. What we are dealing with is a creative artistic interpretation of the theme of the eclipse of the sacred. This phenomenon has cast its dense shadows on the western half of the European continent since the 19th century and has found its clearest expression in Nietzsche’s cry of the death of God. For Nietzsche, the disappearance of God goes hand in hand with what he refers to as “full nihilism”, the loss of meaning and value, the most vivid embodiment of which being the character Zarathustra, who greets the death of God with fits of dancing and laughter. Meaninglessness is thus transformed into “affirmative nihilism”, where humanity perpetually creates itself and its values.
That the gods have disappeared from the world is, however, far from evident. That they have retreated from Berlin, London, or Paris, does not mean that they had disappeared from New York, Delhi, Jakarta, or Cairo. Britain, France, Germany and other Western European countries appear to be the exception in the current global scene. In the US, Brazil, Russia, or Muslim lands religion has either never withdrawn, or is on the ascendancy.
We are witnessing the rise of religion, both in the private and the public sphere. Its expressions vary from the destructive to the constructive, from al-Qaida, the New Evangelists and sectarian fanatics, to the millions across the world who find in religion a source of meaning, value, balance and stability. In its healthy representations, religion can be a factor of social cohesion and a catalyst for civil morality. It can strengthen openness, sharing, concern for others and tolerance, just as it can fuel fanaticism, sectarianism, and violence.
Muslim minorities in the west should remember that they live in liberal societies which have their own visions and experiences of the religious, just as they have theirs. The Enlightenment tradition has given legitimacy to criticism of religion as a fundamental component of the right to free expression. This is largely the outcome of the specific experience Europe, particularly in its Catholic half, has had with religion and the ecclesiastical institution in the Middle Ages. The experience is peculiarly European and does not encapsulate all the histories of the world’s religions.
So long as a creative and artistic work does not stigmatise a specific group, ethnic or religious, or seek to vilify it, it remains perfectly legitimate and within the parameters of free thought and expression. We need to draw a clear line between free thought and expression and the stirring of hatred against other races and religions. Mozart’s Idomeneo should not have provoked this noise and controversy, and should not have been cancelled.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 28 September 2006