Censorship takes center stage in Cincinnati

Kathleen Parker

2/5/2003 12:00:00 AM - Kathleen Parker
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that." -Martin Luther King Jr. Muslims ever alert to any perceived slight to their culture or religion have taken yet another hostage in what appears to be a concerted assault on freedom of speech. This time the fallen is acclaimed playwright/director Glyn O'Malley for the offense of writing "Paradise," a 50-minute play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aimed at high school audiences. The play was inspired by the story of 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras, who blew herself up last year in Jerusalem, killing among others a 17-year-old Israeli girl, Rachel Levy. The two young women, who were pictured together in hundreds of newspapers and on magazine covers, could have been sisters. In the human family, they were. They also were equal victims in a war surely neither of them inspired or understood. That was the message O'Malley says he had hoped to convey. He wasn't trying to make a political point, but to humanize the people in this ongoing conflict. "I have tried to open it up ... and show forces apart from religious ones that any human can identify with: despair, loss, anger." Instead O'Malley, in what has become a modus operandi for certain Muslim groups, has been vilified, verbally assaulted, called a racist, and made to wonder whether his life might be in danger. His attackers called the play "poison" and said it would do more damage than an F16 fighter-bomber; they also equated suicide bombing to "Give me liberty or give me death." In a telephone interview Monday from his home in New York, O'Malley said he was "amazed" by the onslaught, especially because some of his attackers were invited guests to a reading of an early draft of the play. Sensitive to Muslim sensitivity, O'Malley and others from the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, which commissioned the play, had invited diverse members of the Cincinnati community to comment in advance of final draft, including a local rabbi, a professor of Islamic history, and Majed Dabdoub, a structural engineer who brought along 10 other Muslims. "We understand there are sensitivities and want to make sure no one is unreasonably hurt," said O'Malley. "I flew in expecting dialogue. I had everything thrown at me. ... It was extremely charged." And, of course, "They were effective," said O'Malley. "They stopped the play." At least the high school tour has been stopped. The Playhouse is planning a free public reading on Feb. 18. Such censorship and intimidation are unfamiliar to artists and writers in this country. But so go the rules lately when it comes to anything Muslim. Regular readers of this column will recall that political cartoonist Doug Marlette recently was on the receiving end of a similar assault organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. My own columns have appeared on CAIR's "Incitement Alert" list, as doubtless this one will. Such exaggerated reactions to cartoons, columns and now a play suggest that what we're experiencing isn't so much a misunderstanding as a clash of fundamental values. Simply put, Americans subscribe to and thrive in an environment of openness ratified by laws guaranteeing individual liberty and freedom of expression. Our nation was founded on such principles, and we've spent a couple of centuries fine-tuning them. Apparently some Muslims in the United States, regardless of their testimonials to the contrary, do not yet share this heritage. Islam's authoritarian culture did not produce the geniuses who participated in the great freedom debates of 1776. All Americans, regardless of their faith or political persuasion, get to inherit the freedoms that are permitted because of our beloved First Amendment. Sadly, some Muslims apparently don't get it. As Marlette put it in a recent e-mail: "They have the know-how without the know-why." They adopt only as much of American culture as suits their purposes -our freedom to protest, for example -without embracing what makes it possible. Some Muslims say they worry that plays such as O'Malley's deal in stereotypes and invite racism. But as Ed Stern, the play's producing artistic director, points out, racism is born of ignorance and ignorance thrives in the shadows. "This play was shedding light on people, on the fact that we're all human beings. ... In Glyn's play there are no heroes or villains, just flawed human beings trying to figure out how to survive. Now that it isn't being seen, we're taking the lights off again, putting everything back in the shadows." Curtain.