Mozart, Muslims, Idomeneo, and Idiocy
by Stephen Schwartz
In the growing list of intercultural and interfaith disputes that have so absurdly aggravated misunderstandings between the Muslim world and the West, it would be hard to imagine one worse than that recently seen at the Berlin Opera in Germany. In this instance, controversy centered on an avant-garde production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's little-known and seldom-produced opera Idomeneo, scheduled for presentation in November.
The uproar began when it was revealed that the performance would include display of the severed heads of four religious figures: Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and the Greek god Poseidon. Late last month, it was reported that the show would not go on.
The daffy details of this high-culture hullabaloo were neither long in coming nor few in number.
Did the Berlin Opera cook up this nonsense as a publicity gimmick? Time was, such would have been the first suggestion from many observers. But panic over Islam is a reality these days, and there have certainly been enough examples of violent and unpredictable reactions by radical Muslims to make riots over an opera performance seem possible.
In an earlier but evergreen example of obtuseness in this context, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which presents the ultra-radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as the sole legitimate one, complained in 1997 about an image of Muhammad as a lawgiver, installed in the 1930s in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Muhammad is depicted at SCOTUS between Justinian and Charlemagne ?hardly disreputable company from the viewpoint of world culture, but then, CAIR is known as a group that just can't take"yes"for an answer. To any normal person, Muslim or non-Muslim, inclusion of an image of Muhammad at the U.S. Supreme Court would be considered, well, a"supreme?honor. But CAIR asserted the Wahhabi falsehoods that "Islam discouraged its followers from portraying any prophet in paintings, sculptures or other artistic representations.
I put the word "falsehood"as a plural above because the U.S. Supreme Court is not made up of followers of Islam, and according to mainstream Islamic doctrine, should not be held to specifically-Islamic criteria as to its conduct or the decoration of its chambers. More important, the claim that Islam forbids the depiction of prophets is a lie, as anybody with the merest, superficial knowledge of Persian and Turkish Islam knows very well. The radical assertion of such a ban, repeatedly echoed by ignorant but "politically correct" Western media, was widely diffused during the execrable "cartoon crisis." At that time, I refuted it in the pages of The Weekly Standard, which printed some notably beautiful images of the Prophet of Islam. The same groundless allegation was, predictably, regurgitated in media commentary on the Idomeneo flap.
German Muslims stand out in Western Europe for their religious moderation --a point I hope to confirm this week in a visit to Turkish and Kurdish Muslims in the region of Koln. I will solicit their opinions of the Idomeneo affair, and will faithfully report back their comments. I will also suggest that Mozart has much to offer Muslims. For example, another of his operas, better-known than Idomeneo but also seldom-performed, is titled The Abduction From the Seraglio, and tells the story of a Christian girl, Costanze, who is held captive in the Ottoman lands. A brave Christian knight, Belmonte, seeks her rescue. After various adventures, the Turkish governor, Pasha Selim, although he has fallen in love with the Christian woman, decides to free her, that she might be with the non-Muslim man she loves.
The Abduction from the Seraglio includes a lyrical song, "In Morocco a prison held/A maiden fair and fine." I will tell the Muslims I meet that these lines in Mozart's opera may be taken as a simile for the Islamic imagination, today imprisoned by tyranny and extremism, and perhaps in need of a few Christian and other non-Muslim knights who will help in liberating "the Islam of beauty"--an alternative to an Islam of anger and fear.