If "such lies and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust," said Archbishop Angelo Amato, the Vatican's secretary for the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, "they would have justly provoked a world uprising."
The archbishop was speaking of "The Da Vinci Code," the Ron Howard film that debuts at Cannes and opens worldwide this week, and is expected to gross $500 million by summer's end.
The archbishop's point is undeniable. Blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, published a few months ago in a Danish newspaper and reprinted on the front pages of Europe's major papers, ignited demonstrations in Muslim communities across Europe and violent and deadly riots across the Islamic world.
Leaders friendly to the West, from Egypt to Afghanistan, felt compelled to denounce the cartoons, as did many in the West, as a provocation and insult to the faith of a billion people.
In the 1990s, the British novelist Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a "fatwa" calling for his killing for publishing the blasphemous "Satanic Verses." In the 1970s, the film "Muhammad," starring Anthony Quinn, was pulled from many U.S. theaters after bomb threats. The film had offended Muslim faithful by showing the face of Muhammad.
Last February, British historian David Irving, whose books on World War II have sold in the millions, was convicted in an Austrian court of Holocaust denial and sentenced to three years in prison. His crime: In two speeches in Austria in 1989, Irving asserted there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Though he recanted in court, it did not save him. Prosecutors felt his sentence was too light.
Karen Pollock of Great Britain's Holocaust Education Trust applauded the verdict: "Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism dressed up as intellectual debate. It should be regarded as such and treated as such."
In nine countries of Europe, Holocaust denial is a crime. In the United States, to deny the Holocaust happened or suggest that it has been exaggerated is not a crime, but marks one down as a social leper.
If you would know who wields cultural power, ask yourself: Whom is it impermissible to offend? Thus the hoopla attending the release of "The Da Vinci Code," based on the Dan Brown novel that has sold 7 million copies in the United States, tells us something about whose God it is permissible to mock and whose faith one is allowed to assault.