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September 30, 2006

It’s the Idomeneo effect: increase security then watch the consequences

Filed under: AntiJihad, Uncategorized — limewoody @ 7:42 am

I DON’T KNOW much about opera, but I know what I don’t like. I don’t like spinelessness, as in the scrapping of a Mozart opera by Deutsche Oper in Berlin for fear of an Islamic backlash. And I don’t like scapegoating, as in politicians lambasting the opera house director for censorship when she is only giving an artistic interpretation of their own paranoid politics of fear.The decision to drop Mozart’s Idomeneo, because the production features the decapitated head of Muhammad (along with those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon), is a dramatic exhibition of cultural cowardice. We might call it pre-emptive grovelling. No Muslim had uttered a word of protest. But one anonymous operagoer, who saw an earlier production, told police that he felt Muslims might be offended. Kirsten Harms, the Deutsche Oper director, then cancelled it, blaming an “ incalculable security risk”.


Who needs book burners or theatre-door protesters when Europe’s cultural elite is prepared to tear up scripts or turn out the lights? Should we send the sensitivity police into the libraries and theatres to weed out all references to religion in general and Islam in particular? The disputed scene is not in the original opera, but was added a couple of years ago. It sounds like clunky “political” meddling. But freedom of expression must include the liberty to make bad art, too, no matter whom it might offend.

The Berlin opera affair has become a cause célèbre for German politicians. The Interior Minister called the decision “crazy”; Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, said that “self-censorship out of fear is intolerable”. But it wasn’t the opera director who invented the notion that Europe’s culture should prostrate itself to avoid offending Islam. She need only have noted the furore surrounding what Pope Benedict XVI said about Islam.

The Catholic Church took 350 years to revoke the historic condemnation of Galileo, with no apology; the current Pope took two days to distance himself from words he used at a German academic event, and apologise for any offence.

And where could Harms have got the “crazy” idea that Muslims might blow themselves up at her opera house? It was the police and the interior minister for Berlin who warned her of possible “dire consequences” if the opera went ahead. Now they try to blame her for overreacting and say there was no “specific threat”. Presumably if some crank had threatened to bomb the opera, they would deem a ban appropriate.

Chancellor Merkel’s defence of freedom also seems two-faced. She has long lectured Germans about shifting the emphasis from liberty to security in the War on Terror, has declared terrorism the greatest threat facing Europe — greater then the Cold War — and called for a crackdown across Europe. She may now call it intolerable to give way to fear over an opera. But political actors such as her helped to write the script for that melodramatic panic in Berlin.

  • WHEN I was at school, science teachers tended to be a bit odd. One sported a crew-cut and spats, another used a necktie to hold up his trousers. But they knew their subjects well enough to educate a lab-brat like me. In a survey published on my website,, more than a hundred experts were asked what influenced them to take up science. Many pointed to inspiring teachers (who often did experiments deemed too risky today).Such teachers are now an endangered species. A campaign launched this week by top science institutions claims that Britain risks “losing a generation of scientists”. A subject such as A-level physics, they say, is “under siege”, with 37 per cent fewer students taking it than 15 years ago, and that there is a crying need for more specialist teachers in schools.

    The shortage of committed science teachers hardly seems surprising, however, when we are beset by warnings that scientific advance poses a risk to human health and the environment, and when the emphasis in public discussion is less on the wonders of science than worries about side-effects. Schools focus on “science literacy” rather than hard science, which means more ethical hand-wringing than hands-on experiments.

    We are right to be concerned as to what schools are teaching our children about science. But what are we teaching the teachers?


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