Lots being said, and will be said, about "Islam", "freedom of speech", "tolerance" etc. What's missing is some context, a background and insight into the Danish relationship with their Muslim minority. Svend White provides this in his well-argued post:
In recent years, Denmark has been lurching rightward and turning increasingly hostile to Islam and Muslims (who now make up about 4% of the population). It is becoming increasingly common to see headlines about prominent Danish figures openly expressing prejudice against Islam, and mainstream parties are working increasingly closely with hardline nationalist (and, of course, Muslim-baiting) parties that were once rightly viewed as fringe and beyond the pale [...] By all accounts, inter-communal relations in Denmark (which for the most part are Muslim/non-Muslim relations) are becoming worryingly strained and beset with prejudice and misunderstandings. This is the political and social context that Jyllands-Posten's attacks on the Prophet occured in [...] They didn't simply defy the traditional Islamic ban on portraying the Prophet--as any lover of Persian art knows, there are many classics of Islamic art which also completely ignore this taboo; a few mundane sketches of the Prophet by aren't going to roil the Ummah--with predictable drawings, they chose to attack his character and portray him as a bloodthirsty killer. [my emphasis]
This is one of the better posts on this issue and I would highly recommend reading the entire post. I would however, disagree on one point: I think the Muslim demand that the state should intervene is something worthy of criticism. Why do we feel that the state must immediately intervene when something happens which we do not like? I am open to correction, but the Danish government couldn't, even it had wanted to, ban or punish the newspaper which is a privately owned operation that has nothing to do with the state as there is no legal basis for this (note I know nothing about the Danish penal code). And I would have hoped people in the Middle East of all places would be the last to demand state intervention in the media.
Of course, there is the ignoble tradition of tarnishing the image of the Prophet (upon whom be peace) in Europe, stretching back centuries. These images can be viewed as a continuation of that -- I don't think the issue is totally related to the sacred principle of "freedom of speech" (see below). Sepoy has more on this:
Medieval Europe’s fascination with Mahound, Mahomet and Mohamad can be seen from Dante’s description of the Divine Comedy - Mohammad is in the 9th circle of hell, condemned for sowing “scandal and schism” - to Voltaire’s Mahomet: tragédie where he is the seditious imposter. A cursory look at the archives of 13th-18th century reveals frequent and vehement portrayls of Muhammad as wicked, ‘with a desparate stomach’, delighted with rapes and plunder, seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallyied up to 666. For example, the first English translation, via French, of the Qur’an, in 1649, stated, “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) hath learned to speak English”.
(See also, among others, Ahmad Gunny's Perceptions of Islam in European Writings.) As'ad also has it right I think. After (rightfully) pointing out the hypocrisy of Arab governments -- who are cynically exploiting popular feelings -- he writes:
[W]hen it comes to other forms of religious and racial bigotry in the West, those Western governments often ban them (and criminalize them in some countries) without references to "freedom of speech." So don't insult the intelligence of Arabs/Muslims after offending their religious sensibilities.
There can be no denying that some of these drawings were deliberately derogatory and even downright racist. It merely highlights what "enlightened" Europeans think of Muslims and Arabs (bombs, swords, etc. says it all really). Afterall, no European newspaper is about to print a caricature of Jewish figure of importance and then defend it on the grounds of "freedom of expression" are they; Germany and Austria have tough laws against publically expressing Holocaust denial. So the idea that this debate is solely resting on the grounds of "freedom of speech" is a false one, as our speech is already curtailed for many reasons even in liberal democracies (e.g. "national security") and we can find ourselves punished if we say something 'offensive'. The debate, if anything, is about who or what is open to criticism and ridicule.
Certainly, those Muslims who believe the ban on depiction of the Prophet (upon whom be peace) has been absolutely adhered to among Muslim cultures are deluding themselves (please note, this is not a fiqh opinion of any kind, so don't drop comments below to that effect; thank you). This is simply not the case. And yes, despite Muslim reservations, secular and non-Muslim Europeans are not going to have the same sensitivities about depicting the Prophet (upon whom be peace). One of the drawings just looks like an attempt to draw the man, with which we might well disagree, but cannot expect the law or government to stop them doing so.
Sometimes, to be perfectly frank, I think ignoring these sorts of images and publications are the better solution for Muslims who are offended. Why? Well, the reproduction of these images in newspapers across Europe answers the point for me. Asking for such images to be banned merely has the opposite effect in generating publicity for the offending material ('all publicity is good publicity') -- why must we do the PR work for them? Not only does the internet make such calls for a ban ineffective, we also end up making false martyrs out of idiots and fools, especially when the more excitable and downright vicious amongst us make stupid and dangerous threats or, worse, commit acts of murder. While there are people languishing in prison who genuinely stand up for the right to speak out against tyranny (remember that Muslim tradition?), including many people in Muslim nations, we turn second-rate cartoonists and film-makers into heroic defenders of "freedom of speech". Take the case of The Satanic Verses. I know more people who read the book in Pakistan, where the book was banned (and this still remains the case as far as I know), then I do in the UK (see these comments on the book from a Pakistani scholar). In fact, a quick (and completely unscientific) survey in my office reveals that I am the only who has read the book -- and I'm the only Muslim in this office of a dozen people. The reason most of them give is that the publication of Rushdie's work had no relevance to them, though one or two said they did purchase the book in response to the outcry. Canadian Muslims had it right when they more or less ignored Irshad Manji. I am not suggesting Muslims should not respond to publications or images they feel are derogatory towards their faith, but why rise to the bait of people obviously looking for a "controversy"?
A few more bloggers on this matter:
Elemental: "How much forsight does it take to forsee that Muslims would be offended by drawing an image of Mohamad and dipicting his turban as a lit bomb?"
Steve Gillard (1, 2): "The Europeans are full of shit here [...] Those cartoons are deeply offensive and are no better than if the WaPo or Boston Globe had a cartoon of Al Sharpton being lynched. Freedom of the Press is fine, but depicting Muhammad as a drunk with women is asking for a major reaction [...] You would NEVER see this in an Israeli paper. Why? Because the cartoonist would go to jail. When a Settler drew a cartoon of Muhammad as a pig she got four years because they were afraid the Intifada would kick off again [...] Europeans have made it clear that Muslims are outsiders. Then, in the crudest way possible, they insult their faith and wonder why muslims refuse to buy their products, withdraw their ambassadors and make bomb threats."
Sunni Sister: "What I personally find troubling about this is that while the Germans, French, Austrians, Belgians, and others have laws against Holocaust deniers, now, today, in the name of free speech and democracy their governments and certain people within their societies are spreading the same sort of hateful propaganda against Muslims, Arabs, and Africans. I would hope that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, are more sensitive to hate propaganda against any and all non-Whites and non-Christians in a post-World War II world."
Umar Lee: "Boycotting Danish goods or making or starting a diplomatic war with Europe is ill-advised; under Danish law, and European law, there is nothing that can legally be done against the publisher and unfortunately these kinds of things will continue to be published in the future and there is nothing that can be done about it from the governments. If Muslims want to put pressure on the publishers then the best way to do it is to go after the advertisers and that is something that can realistically be done in an affective manner."
Haroon: "French and Spanish newspapers then extended the insult by publishing those cartoons and others, making a mockery of the Prophet (pbuh) again. One could agree with their contention that this is a statement in favor of free speech, but since France's notion of free speech is quite limited to begin with -- the government can, after all, tell you what to wear to school and how to wear it -- methinks there is a thinly veiled secularist contempt for Islam which is not only in operation, but spreading in scope."