TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

German Censorship, Turkish Enlightenment

Too often the descriptions of contemporary cultural conflicts draw distinctions between a European or Western “openness” and prevalent illiberalism in the Islamic world, marked by the extensive absence of liberal democracies. This observation then turns quickly into a binary discussion of “western” values in contradiction to the presumed underdevelopment of similar perspectives elsewhere. Not surprisingly, on closer scrutiny, the picture is more complex: there are plenty of reformists and democrats in Iran, Turkey or in the Arab world—and these are the dissidents to whom the western press ought to pay more attention (while western anti-imperialists regularly celebrate the most reactionary elements, because of their uncompromising rejectionism and authoritarianism). Meanwhile, the capacity for illiberalism in the heart of the West becomes more evident every day. Via a dogmatic multiculturalism, the liberal left reverts to what was once called “repressive tolerance,” ending up advocating for illiberal measures in the name of a misunderstood liberalism. This is the shape of the dialectic of enlightenment today: (self)-censorship in modern Europe, enlightened debate in Turkey.

In Berlin, Mozart’s opera Idomeneo has been dropped from the season of the Deutsche Oper in the staging directed by Hans Neuenfels—evidently because the final scene includes a presentation of the decapitated heads of Buddha, Jesus and . . . Mohammed. The Director of the opera, Kirstin Harms, evidently panicked when she learned of the prospect of security risks (and not from enraged Buddhists). Her opportunistic solution: keep the art world safe, by sticking to safe art.

Needless to say, this has led to a political uproar in a country that treats serious music seriously. The responses in the art world, however, are of greater interest, as reported on September 26 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

More important than the political eruption is the incomprehension among artists. Klaus Staeck, the President of the Berlin Academy of the Arts, for example, condemned the decision of the Deutsche Oper as “dangerous: We must not fall back behind our own hard won convictions.” The director and professional provocateur Christoph Schlingensief announced: ” the panicked retreat must be immediately reversed.” The writer Monika Maron declared: “The decision by Kirsten Harms is a call to Muslims to comb through the assumptions of our culture to look for any possible insults and then to subject them to a Muslim censorship. If Frau Harms does not want to defend Mozart and Neuenfels, she should resign.” And Dieter Grimm, head of the Wissenschaftskolleg, opined: “the arts and their public should be protected from their opponents—we should not be protecting these opponents from the arts.”

It’s an interesting constellation: the PC decision of the Director of the Opera elicits opposition not only from (conservative) politicians but from the typically adversarial and left-leaning arts community. The response from the German (largely but not solely) Turkish community also displays an interesting range:

Representatives of Muslim organizations evaluate the removal of the opera from the season in various ways. The Federal President of the Turkish Community in German, Kenan Kolat, complained in the Netzeitung, that the Deutsche Oper, with its decision, had sacrificed an opportunity for public debate: it’s a matter of art and not the platform of a politician, which one can critique. The President of the Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya, in contrast, welcomed the removal of the opera. “An opera or a caricature—there’s no big difference.” According to Kizilkaya, it is not a matter of artistic freedom but of “respect for the Other.”

There you have it: the choice is between “respect for the Other” and freedom.

Meanwhile, a similarly diverse debate has opened up in Turkey—without the German censorship. Turkey is a particularly sensitive location, given the potential membership in the E.U., which is opposed by Pope Benedict, who nonetheless has a visit there planned for November. Some of the first and harshest criticisms of the Pope came from Turkey, including the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini.

Nonetheless, as the FAZ reports, an extraordinarily enlightened discussion has begun to unfold. The daily newspaper Zaman, for example, has discussed the whole book from which Benedict took the controversial quotation—nothing comparable has happened in the newspapers of record of the US.

In the meantime, however, the original critic of the Pope, Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the State Ministry of Religion has faced embarrassing public criticism:

that he condemned the Regensburg address without having read it. Bardakoglu was the first in the Islamic world to respond to the speech. He accused the Pope of a crusader mentality and predicted the end of all dialogue.

 . . . without knowledge of the text. (He should apply to the editorial board of the New York Times with reading skills like that.)

In the end, Benedict’s speech involved the standing of religion within the realm of reason, the university, and with that in mind, another Turkish response is right on the mark:

Not a few Turks shake their heads and ask, like the chief editor of the liberal newspaper Radikal, Ismet Berkan, where all the smart theologians in Turkey are hiding, who could respond to the Pope on an equal intellectual level. According to him, Turkey is the only venue in the Muslim world that could give such an answer because it is closest to the West. Instead, there was only Bardakoglu’s ’emotional’ reaction.

That sounds like an echo of the Pope’s critique of the West, and its divorce of faith from reason. In the West, science jettisons religion to an arbitrary private sphere, while in the Muslim world, anti-modernity and anti-reason gain ground. The additional question hidden in this issue is the status of universities in the Muslim world—why are none among the top 500? Constant invocation of the grand past of Muslim science does not make up for the state of academic affairs today.

Finally, as a reminder that the Western multicultural mea culpas represent a regression behind democratic positions held in the Muslim world as well, a biting comment from the Turkish discussion, the level of enlightenment in which outshines the official opinion-makers of the western press:

Not a few journalists claim that Benedict XVI is right. For example, Hadi Uluengin in Hürriyet, reminds his readers of Bin Laden and Zarqawi, the death fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, the murders of nuns in Algeria and Senegal, the Taliban and the violence with which young [Muslim] girls in European suburbs are forced to wear the veil. ‘And all that is supposed to compatible with the logic of the great Muslim thinkers like Ibn Rushd and Farabi?’ he asks bitterly.

And in the US, one can ask, equally bitterly, why the really-existing liberalism around us refuses to think along the lines, choosing instead to reproach the Pope for indelicacies.

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