Things That Offend Muslims: Cartoons, Books, History, Operas…

James Lileks observes that the list of things that spark outrage and violence from Islamists is long, indeed.

Clip and save, for this may come in handy: If you mock Islam with a drawing or a novel, you get riots and dead people. News of mishandled holy books yields riots and dead people. Insufficiently reverent short films by a Dutchman yields a dead person, specifically the Dutchman.

Now we add this detail: Quoting medieval religious colloquies is a reasonable justification for burning churches, shooting a nun and holding up signs demanding that the pope convert to Islam or saw off his own head. (There have been reports of carpal tunnel syndrome among radical Islam’s enforcers, and they have requested we all help out.)

This is a new twist: Now history itself cannot be discussed. Since it’s difficult to predict what else will enflame the devout, Islam has to be treated with unusual deference, like a 3-year-old child with anger management problems.

But it’s not what we say that truly offends. It’s what we are. The West’s lack of interest in joining the Ummah is an affront in itself, and we broadcast our sins in High Infidelity. If you believed that the West’s apostasy was an affront to God, you’d spend your leisure hours torching straw popes, too.

Oddly, the barbaric reaction to art and other forms of speech is having its desired chilling effect. We’ve had the network behind “South Park,” which doesn’t blink twice at showing blood coming out of the Virgin Mary’s rectum or all manner of vile representations of Jesus Christ refusing to show a cartoon image of Muhammad. The Germans are preemptively canceling operas.

A leading German opera house has canceled performances of a Mozart opera because of security fears stirred by a scene that depicts the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a storm of protest here about what many see as the surrender of artistic freedom. The Deutsche Oper Berlin said Tuesday that it had pulled “Idomeneo” from its fall schedule after the police warned of an “incalculable risk” to the performers and the audience. The company’s director, Kirsten Harms, said she regretted the decision but felt she had no choice. She said she was told in August that the police had received an anonymous threat, but she acted only after extensive deliberations.

Political and cultural figures throughout Germany condemned the cancellation. Some said it recalled the decision of European newspapers not to reprint satirical cartoons about Muhammad, after their publication in Denmark generated a furor among Muslims. Wolfgang Börnsen, a culture spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in Parliament, accused the opera house of “falling on its knees before the terrorists.” “It is a signal to other stages in Germany, or even elsewhere in Europe, to put no works on their programs that criticize Islam,” he said.

Joe Gandleman observes that the controversial scenes were included the last time the opera was staged, a mere three years ago.

It’s just that some things have changed since then, such as the boundaries of free speech, what art is permissible, how far people who write, draw and perform are willing to go to perform their freedoms to do what they have been able to do for many years, and what is deemed PC (or dangerous to your physical health).


Ed Morrissey overstates matters a bit when he writes, “How does the West lose the war against radical Islamists? One small surrender at a time.” Sensitivity to the cultural concerns of others is, generally speaking, a good thing and the West is learning a lot about the Muslim world. Avoiding gratuitous insults is laudable when done as a result of enlightenment. But it’s lamentable when done out of fear.

Open dialogue with civilized Muslims is a necessary component of stemming the tide of Islamist violence. Surrender of our basic values is not. Indeed, appeasement in the face of terrorism will, quite naturally, yield more terrorism.

FILED UNDER: Policing, Religion, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s a little more to it than that, James. Does anyone have a right to carry their culture, lock, stock, and barrel, with them and have it honored at the expense of local custom? I don’t see how anything other than misery derives from that principle.

    Were I to travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia I would refrain from drinking alcohol even if I were accustomed to doing so at home. I expect the same deference to local custom when Saudis visit here. Si fueris Romae…

    But a panicked avoidance of offending a minority culture, resident or not? That’s crazy. There’s no right not to be offended. It’s unachievable and, what’s more, it’s tyranny.

  2. James Joyner says:


    No disagreement from me on any of that.

    It’s good to understand when offhand things are offensive to others, so that one can weigh the harm against the speech. We don’t have the equivalent of “Amos and Andy” on the air anymore and have stopped flying the Confederate battle flag over state capitols. Manners sometimes overweighs the value of speech.

    Again, though, that’s far different than chilling one’s expression out of fear of violent reaction.

  3. madmatt says:

    Would this be the kind of free speech bush fears when he refuses to go to unscripted campaigh events? The free speech the right wing condemned in regards to the tv movie “The Reagans” or the free speech rights the fundie christians get into when any other religion is mentioned favorably?

  4. Paula says:

    If Muslims who do not support terrorism would rise up and expell the terrorists in their midst who are using their name to justify mass murder, they would have a lot less to be offended by.

  5. Steven Plunk says:


    Bush, “fundie christians”, and the right wing generally don’t riot and kill over the issues they hold dear. The difference is clear to those who look at it rationally.

  6. Bandit says:

    I personally think having women walk behind their husbands, stoning homosexuals to death and honor killings are repugnant to my beliefs. However I don’t think that gives me an excuse to mass murder.

  7. Bloodstomper says:

    Excellent move for the World of Art and a grand way to get stupid right-wing nuts to attend an opera or an art show. Alls we got to do is tell the right-wing nuts that there’s a head of Mohammed in the show and they’ll trip over themselves to buy a ticket! Bravo!

  8. legion says:

    I think Matthew Shepard would disagree with you.

    And before you dismiss that as fringe violence, go look at Eric Rudolph. Ask Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell what they think about gays. Ask Ann Coulter what she thinks of non-Christians. It’s a frighteningly thin line that keeps these people from killing for their beliefs, and the only reason you don’t see it is because they’re not threatening _you_.

  9. Bandit says:

    It’s a frighteningly thin line that keeps these people from killing for their beliefs, and the only reason you don’t see it is because they’re not threatening _you_.

    Nice projection.

  10. Steven Plunk says:


    Matthew Shepard was not killed by Bush, religious fundies, or right wingers. He was killed by drug addled criminals. There is not even any guilt by association there.

    Robertson and Falwell abhor homosexuality but practice hate the sin love the sinner. I haven’t seen any violence from their camps.

    Coulter uses extreme rhetoric to make points and sell books, but again, her readers do not riot and kill.

    I may not like hippies but I certainly don’t advocate killing them. If I say hippies are stupid for living in the past and not showering that doesn’t incite others to hunt them down. Pointing out the bad habits of others is not remotely similar to what we are discussing here.

    I don’t see a threat from those people because it is not there.

  11. It seems that the cancellation will be revoked and this opera will be shown after all. What a great and shrewd publicity stunt the opera house made by first announcing the cancellation. Usually hardly anybody would be interested in that opera, but now it is the talk of the town.

    Let’s not forget that theater plays critical of Christians and Israel also get canceled. Earlier this year:
    “A New York theatre company has put off plans to stage a play about an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza because of the current “political climate” – a decision the play’s British director, Alan Rickman, denounced as “censorship”.”

    I am not a fan of Rachel Corrie. Not at all. However, if one criticizes the canellation of the Mozart opera for fear of offending Muslimes, then one should also criticize the canceling of that play for fear of offending supporters of Israel..

    “On May 23, 1998, the New York Times announced that the Manhattan Theatre Club would be canceling its scheduled production of playwright Terrence McNally’s newest play, Corpus Christi, due to bomb and death threats made against the theatre, its personnel, and the playwright. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights disavowed responsibility for the threats but did publicly applaud the decision, calling the play “blasphemous.””

    When Corpus Christi was shown in Germany in 2000, there have been death threats and bomb threats as well:

    Thus it could very well be that the threats against the “Idomeneo” opera are not only coming from Muslims, but from Christians, who don’t like to see the severed head of Jesus… Having said that: The concern about attacks from Muslims is bigger.