Of course the conviction of Pussy Riot was not just about religious outrage, and the violent anti-Americanism manifested in Muslim countries, including the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, was not suddenly created and called forth by a single video. Blasphemy and blasphemy laws have a long history, which is worth considering right now. One of the reasons to be wary of blasphemy laws, besides the limits that they place on freedom of speech, is that they tend to concede the legitimacy of religious outrage in all its fanatical fury, even though the charge of blasphemy has too often been manipulated for political motives.

When Savonarola denounced blasphemers in Florence in the 1490s, it was certainly not intended as a sensitively inclusive gesture to urge people to show respect for one another's religious beliefs. He was thinking about the wrath of God. Blasphemy was supposed to be directly offensive to God, and one intemperate blasphemer might bring divine wrath upon the whole city-- even as Savonarola became increasingly politically influential in Florence. In Venice in the 1530s a special judicial tribunal was created for the sole and dedicated purpose of hearing cases of blasphemy, officialy for the purpose of warding off divine wrath, but also with the political intention of limiting the religious intervention of the Vatican. It was a unique venture, the creation of a secular court by the government of the Republic of San Marco in order to punish Venetians for insulting God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Such insults suddenly seemed to be epidemic. It was the same climate of religious anxiety that led Venetians to create the first Jewish Ghetto in Europe in the early sixteenth century.

The blasphemy tribunal of three or four rotating members met in the Doge's Palace, and though they sometimes presumed to declare that they had actually succeeded in wiping out blasphemy, cursing God turned out to be one of those human impulses that, in spite of Job's biblical forbearance, never actually disappears in a harsh world. The records of the blasphemy tribunal are rich with a range of spectacularly vulgar, weird, sometimes ingeniously expressive ways of insulting God and his company, many of which, if dramatized in a youtube video about one prophet or another, might well inspire religious outrage. Some blaspheming, then as now, was obviously intended to be funny. (Go see the Book of Mormon, if you can get a ticket.) Punishments in Venice included fines, banishment, condemnation to the rowing galleys, and mutilation of the tongue, but the problem never went away. The interesting and instructive historical development was that the tribunal, which existed right up to the abolition of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon in 1797, began to aggrandize its sphere of jurisdiction. Soon it not only defended the honor of God, but also prosecuted a range of offenders who caused "scandal" offensive to God and also, of course, disruptive of social order: from beggars who pretended to be pilgrims, to Christians who had sexual relations with Jews. The charge of policing blasphemy was very difficult to delimit, and the tribunal's official concern with protecting God from offense ended up being interpreted rather loosely.