By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist
In 1989, photographer Andres Serrano exhibited a photo he called “Piss Christ,” depicting a crucifix submerged in urine. It raised a furor and was condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Nobody was killed.
In 1999, artist Chris Ofili exhibited a painting he called “The Holy Virgin Mary” in which the mother of Jesus has an exposed breast made of elephant dung. It drew a rebuke from the mayor of New York and crowds of protesters.
Nobody was injured.
Last year, a Danish newspaper printed political cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, one showing him with a bomb in his turban. There were weeks of rioting across Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. At least one person died in Somalia, five in Afghanistan, a hundred in Nigeria. An untold number of people were injured. Property damage was in the millions.
You may think the point of the foregoing parallel is that Christians react more maturely to provocation than Muslims. You would be mistaken. After all, Muslims in America, surely as offended by the cartoons of the Prophet as Muslims anywhere else, did not riot or kill. Their protests were confined to statements of anger and letters to editors.
No, the point has less to do with religion than with culture. As in, some cultures value freedom of expression more than others. Some realize the person who is not free to speak his or her mind is not truly free at all.
And some know courage is the price of that freedom.
Which brings us to Germany, where an opera house in Berlin last week ended a production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” that featured the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed. The opera, which premiered in 2003, also included the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon, part of director Hans Neuenfels’ protest of organized religion. But it was security fears specifically related to the Muslim prophet that led Kirsten Harms, director of Deutsche Oper, to cancel the production.
Many Germans have condemned the decision, lead by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who warned that “self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable.”
I agree, of course, but I also empathize with Kirsten Harms. Certainly it was only a matter of time before the production came to the attention of world Islam; one marvels that it escaped three years without detection. And we all know what would have happened then. It’s one thing to risk one’s own building, one’s own crew, even one’s own life, for the principle of free speech. But who’d want to live with the knowledge that their opera caused riots and deaths all over the world, further destabilizing an already fragile and unstable planet.
So I understand Harms’ thinking. But I disagree with it.
For too long, radical Muslims have behaved like the spoiled children of the planet, throwing temper tantrums — violence and the threat thereof — to get their way. Any seasoned parent can tell you that giving in to tantrums only ensures more tantrums.
Better to teach the child restraint. Better to teach him to share. In radical Islam’s case, to share the planet with those who are not of their ideology; to behave with tolerance if not acceptance.
I do not argue provocation for its own sake, which is why I disagreed with papers that reprinted the cartoons of the Prophet. There was no point to it; it was the journalistic equivalent of one school kid insulting another’s mother.
This is different. Neuenfels uses provocative imagery to make a political point. Most of us would disagree with that point, but his right to make it should never be in question.
This is what the rest of the world must teach radical Islam, but we can’t if we retreat in fear from our own principles. Yes, the danger is real. Offend the crazies and they will destroy property or take somebody hostage. But the alternative is worse. To give in is to destroy more than property.
And make hostages of us all.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: