Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization, has asked for a disclaimer in the upcoming film based on The Da Vinci Code. Not only does the author of the book, Dan Brown, defame this Catholic group, but the thesis undermines the very legitimacy of the Church and its doctrines.
Brown’s argument is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and there are descendants living in Europe. Although Brown maintains this claim is predicated on a non-fiction book, the evidence for this assertion is entirely speculative.
Sony Pictures, which has produced the film, dismissed the request by noting the film is “a work of fiction, and at its heart, it’s a thriller, not a religious tract.”
Contrast this event which blasphemes Catholicism, with an Italian magazine, Studi Catollic, that recently published a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad cut in half and burning in hell. The drawing in question shows the poets Virgil and Dante looking down on Mohammed split in two and engulfed in flames
"Isn’t that man there split in two from head to navel, Mohammed?” Dante asks Virgil.
“Yes and he is cut in two because he has divided society,” Virgil replies. “While that woman there, with the burning coals, represents the politics of Italy towards Islam.”
As an aftermath of publication, the editor was threatened. He immediately said he hadn’t any intention of offending any religion. “I freely ask… for forgiveness.”
This was a marked change of tone from the editor’s initial comment, when he said, “We must not fear freedom of opinion.”
In fact, included in the apology is the claim that the cartoon isn’t against Mohammad; “it addresses a loss of the West’s identity.”
While I don’t have evidence suggesting a change of heart was brought about by intimidation, it is a plausible conclusion based on dozens of similar events. Moreover, it might well be asked why there is any fuss over a cartoon which represents in graphic form what Dante Alighieri wrote centuries ago?
Dante placed Mohammed in Hell in Canto 28 of the Divine Comedy. This canto inspired a painting by William Blake, depicting Muhammad with his entrails hanging out, and a fresco in Bologna Cathedral showing him being tortured by a devil.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from these two descriptions. Criticism of religion is permitted, whether tasteful or not, in Western societies. In the case of Opus Dei, a disclaimer for an offensive film was requested. In the case of Muslims, offended by a cartoon in an Italian publication, threats are made and intimidation quite likely.
In the former case, the request is rejected; in the latter, the editor grovels and revises his intentions.
The role that Islamic violence, or possible violence, plays in preemptive acceptance of Islamic positions should not be underestimated. Catholics understandably reject the implicit precepts in the Da Vinci Code, which goes directly to the heart of the religion. But I could not find any evidence that Brown and his publisher have been threatened. Had they been put in that position, the public outcry would be deafening.
Islam, however, is treated differently. The West is fearful of offending Muslims because we have seen the reaction on our television screens and on the streets of European capitals. One might even say the threat of violence has a chastening effect on public attitudes.
This is the dilemma: Western tolerance permits intolerant responses to real or perceived offenses. In fact, the sensitivity to Islamic concerns is so well ensconced in the public imagination that self-censorship often precedes revelation.
Who can forget what happened to Theo Van Gogh when he criticized the treatment of Muslim women? Emerging from this comparison is a West that may not be able to defend its own traditions, not when might makes right or principle is modified by fear.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website, www.herblondon.org.