The cartoons first appeared in September in the Danish regional newspaper "Jyllands Posten." But they were reprinted by a Norwegian publication earlier this month, apparently transforming what had been sporadic criticism into a coordinated wave of fury.
In Egypt, the government suspended trade negotiations with Danish envoys, while in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, shopkeepers took Scandivanian products off their shelves, in response to popular calls for a boycott.
Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, meanwhile, called for the Danish government to take measures against those who blaspheme Islam.
To some commentators, the scale and vehemence of the protests recalled the outrage that followed Salman Rushdie's publication of the novel "Satanic Verses" in 1989. That book earned its author a death sentence from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and round-the-clock security protection from the British government.
Editors at the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons had to be aware their move would be highly controversial. So why did they do it?
Satire Vs. Self-Censorship
Flemming Rose, the culture editor at "Jyllands Posten, notes by way of background that he spent many years reporting from the former Eastern Bloc under communism. And he says he personally commissioned the drawings to make a point about freedom of expression, in the belief that too many authors and artists were starting to self-censor their work.
"In the middle of September , a Danish children's writer went public, saying that he had big difficulties finding an illustrator for a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad," Rose says. "Three illustrators turned down his offer to take up the job. And the one who finally took up the job insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. You do not want to appear under your own name. And that's why I commissioned these cartoons."
Rose says he asked the illustrators to depict how they viewed Muhammad and to sign their names to the drawings. He gave no other guidance. The results were mostly satirical, which is very much in the Danish tradition of popular cartoonists. But the satire, he insists, was aimed at many targets and even-handed.
"None of the cartoons transcends the limits of what we usually say and do in Denmark," Rose says. "We make fun of Jesus Christ, we make fun of the royal family, we make fun of politicians, and so on and so forth. And among those 12 cartoons, in fact, one of them is specifically making fun of me and my newspaper, saying we are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. Another cartoon is making fun of a very famous Danish politician who is critical towards Muslim immigration."
Many Muslims did not get the joke and saw the cartoons as a calculated provocation.
The Danish government stood by the newspaper editors and refused calls to condemn them. As Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained, the right to free expression is paramount in Denmark.
"The newspapers are free and independent and decide for themselves what to publish," Rasmussen said on 30 January. "If you ask for my personal opinion, I can say that I personally respect other people's religious beliefs, that I personally would never portray Muhammad, Jesus, or any other religious figures in any way that could offend other people. But we must insist that we have freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Denmark, which means that the daily 'Jyllands Posten' just as any other media may publish the cartoons and articles they choose within the boundaries of the law."
Despite that endorsement, editors at "Jyllands Posten" on 30 January issued a partial apology on the newspaper's website, acknowledging the anger they provoked. But Rose says the apology must be understood correctly. It is not a repudiation of the cartoons.
"We stand by these cartoons 100 percent. And we will not apologize for publishing the cartoons. They are perfectly within the limits of what we usually do in Denmark," Rose says. "But we admit that some people, especially in the Middle East, some Muslims, do not know about this tradition of satire and the context for all this. And we are saying to them that we feel sorry, we apologize if you have been insulted by these cartoons. That is not to say that we apologize for the cartoons. We will never do that."
'Culture War,' But Whose?
Rose says he believes there is a "culture war" going on between the West and Islam as well as within Islamic societies themselves, which must be discussed. And he believes Europeans should not give in to what he calls "totalitarian impulses" coming from radical Islamists.
"This is a culture war and it's not only a culture war between Western democracies and the Islamic world," Rose says. "I see this first and foremost as a culture war within the Muslim world, between those Muslims who want to live in a modern, secular democracy and the forces who want to turn back the clock and have all the same totalitarian and authoritarian impulses that I saw in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe when I was living there in the 80s and 90s."
Professor Hilal Khashan, an expert on politics and Islam at the American University in Beirut, says he is not surprised by the anger generated by the cartoons. He notes that in almost all majority-Muslim countries the secular and the religious cannot be untangled. This leads to a natural confrontation with the European secularist view.
"The answer [for this anger] is very simple," Khashan says. "Western societies are secular. Muslim societies are heavily religious. Muslim political socialization is extremely deep and religious inculcation is essential in the raising of Muslim kids. Religion in this part of the world remains central to life and belief systems are highly important. Even highly secular political orders in the Arab world never tried to mess with religion. They never contested Islam as a system of beliefs."
In this era of globalization, Khashan continues, newspaper editors can no longer expect to be speaking to just a local audience, in this case Denmark. That can be both an advantage or present problems. "Since we live in a highly interactive world, characterized by rapid communication and access to information, it becomes extremely difficult to talk about targeting a specific audience," he notes.
But nevertheless, Khashan says this uproar may have a silver lining if it encourages what he believes is desperately needed in the Muslim world: discussion about religious reform and Islam's role in society.
"Now there's an opportunity for Muslims to start a debate among themselves, and to be honest with you, no matter what the West tries to do to get Muslims to reform Islam, it won’t work. Muslims have to think about religion and they have to revisit it [themselves] and they have to come to terms with it. Muslims must take a stand and they must begin the process of their religious reform," Khashan says.
In the meantime, European satirists and their editors may have to tread more carefully.