IT WAS always intended to generate a debate about freedom of speech but, buried innocuously in the culture section of a newspaper, no-one guessed it would spark global protests, the burning of effigies and the unlikely cry of "Death to Denmark".
The subject matter, admittedly, was contentious, involving a writer's struggle to find an illustrator for his book about the Koran, and in particular the sacred prophet, Muhammad. There were warning signs. Three cartoonists turned down the job. One cited the murder in Amsterdam of film director Theo van Gogh, slain in broad daylight in 2004. Another complained that a lecturer in Copenhagen had been assaulted by a mob who disagreed with his decision to give a reading of the Koran to non-Muslims.
We now know that the worried cartoonists' reticence was well judged. That satire and religion can be an unholy partnership was never more clear than last week, when radical Muslims reacted with fury to 12 cartoons of the prophet that appeared in the Copenhagen daily Jyllands-Posten.
The artist behind the most 'offensive' cartoon, of Muhammad wearing a turban that looks like a suicide bomb, has reportedly gone into hiding. Fatwahs have been demanded; hatred has marched on streets across the world, including London, with billboards demanding beheadings and vengeance; Muslim children have been paraded in prams wearing "I love al-Qaeda" hats.
The contention of the protesters is simple: the prophet Muhammad had been portrayed as a terrorist. There appears no prospect of compromise. Leaders of the al-Ghurabaa group, members of which have previously praised terrorist attacks, including the London bombings last July, led a demonstration in the capital on Friday. "The only way this will be resolved is if those who are responsible are turned over so they can be punished by Islamic law, so that they can be executed," said protester Abu Ibraheem, 26, from Luton. "There are no apologies... those responsible have to be killed."
The crowd carried banners that read "Europe, your 9-11 will come", "Annihilate those who insult Islam" and "Freedom of speech, go to hell" as they marched past Harrods, in leafy Kensington. At the Danish Embassy, cheers were heard as protesters set two Danish flags alight and then tore down the remains. In Africa, tens of thousands of Sudanese demonstrators in Khartoum filled a downtown square, calling for a boycott of goods from Denmark.
Some shouted: "You Danish satan, the Muslim people are now out after you!" Some even shouted for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to retaliate for the insult to their prophet. "Strike, strike, strike, bin Laden," the frenzied group chanted. "We are ready to die in defence of you our beloved prophet."
There is much about the furious row that seems puzzling to those in the West who have been reared in a society that treasures free speech. But one of the strangest aspects is that the issue took so long to catch light. The original cartoons were published on September 30, last year.
It took Muslim ambassadors three weeks to complain to the Danish prime minister, and even then the anger was largely limited to Denmark. When the images were reprinted in Norway last month the row began to spread, igniting in violence when it became widely reported in the Middle East last month, leading Saudi Arabia to withdraw its ambassador from Copenhagen on January 26.
Any hope of a diplomatic resolution was quickly replaced with images of AK47-clad gunmen storming the EU compound in Gaza, partly in reaction to the decision of European newspapers to reproduce the controversial cartoons - an act of defiance in defence of free speech that was deemed by many Muslims as an overt act against Islam.
In response, a statement attributed to the Mujahideen Army calls on fighters to "hit whatever targets possible" in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also warned its citizens against travelling to Gaza and the West Bank. The Swedish consulate in Jerusalem received a fax from a group claiming to be Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades demanding citizens of Sweden and Denmark leave. "All Swedes and Danes that exist on our soil have 48 hours to leave our country, or else," it warned.
Images of Muhammad have long been discouraged in Islam. To the faithful he was a prophet and religious reformer who united the scattered Arabian tribes in the seventh century, founding what went on to become one of the world's five great religions. To Muslims, he was the last in a line of figures which included Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but which found its supreme fulfilment in Muhammad.
They believe that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who commanded him to memorise and recite the verses sent by God which became the Koran - and that he completed and perfected the teaching of God throughout history.
But it is because Muslims believe Muhammad was the messenger of Allah, that they believe all his actions were willed by God. When speaking or writing, his name is always preceded by the title "Prophet" and followed by the phrase: "Peace be upon him." Attempts to depict him in illustration are strictly forbidden. Criticism of Muhammad is criticism of Allah himself, equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim countries.
To many, last week's events have an unnerving resonance with the fatwah issued on Salman Rushdie, following his novel The Satanic Verses. The 1988 work depicted Muhammad as a cynical schemer and his wives as prostitutes. The impact of the fatwah has played a part in the decision of most of the British media not to follow their European counterparts in reproducing the cartoons - though the BBC did broadcast them on Thursday.
Throughout history Muslims have cast out, destroyed or denounced all images, whether carved or painted, as idolatry. Despite that, hundreds of images of Muhammad have been created over the centuries. Today, iconic pictures of Muhammad are sold openly on the street in Iran. The creation, sale or owning of such images is illegal, but the regime is known to turn a blind eye.
The current fury stems from the belief that the cartoons published first in Denmark set out to ridicule the prophet. As such, they helped fuel the feeling, encouraged by radical Islamists, that Muslims across the globe are threatened and routinely picked-upon by the world's great powers. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), said: "The decision by papers in other countries to reproduce these cartoons is unprecedented. Anti-semitism in 1930s Europe, although rife even in the British press, did not simply replicate Nazi propaganda. The level of systematic hatred that the replication of these caricatures evidences is, we fear, now part of an inevitable prologue to systematic violence against Muslims in Europe."
Shaykh Ibhrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain and an imam in Leicester, added: "This is the most offensive thing - even the vilification of God is not as offensive as this."
The tone of world leaders is more measured but no less serious or condemnatory. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, an ally of the West and a moderate Muslim leader, said: "Any insult to the Holy Prophet is an insult to more than one billion Muslims."
Muslim groups applauded the sacking of the managing editor of France Soir, one of the newspapers that carried the cartoons, on Wednesday night. Jacques Lefranc said he may challenge his dismissal. Circulation of the newspaper, which is being sold out of bankruptcy, almost doubled to 100,000 copies after publishing the images of Muhammad.
Robert Menard, secretary-general of Reporters Sans Frontieres, said "the government should be standing up for France Soir's right to publish" the cartoons, and criticised Tunisia and Morocco for putting bans on the newspaper. In Britain, newspapers indicated that their decision not to print the cartoons was an attempt to balance the freedom of the press with the principle of not gratuitously insulting those with whom you disagree.
World figures tended to agree. Former US president Bill Clinton described the cartoons as "appalling" while Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went further. He said: "The republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."
The climate of protest and threatened reprisals upon Danes and Norwegians have forced Jyllands-Posten into a qualified apology. A leader article in the newspaper last Friday said: "If we had known that it would end with death threats and that the lives of Danish people could be put at risk, we would naturally not have published the drawings. It is clear that the price for this journalistic initiative in the light of this background is too high."
But it added: "We could not have known that a group of imams would travel to the Middle East and spread lies and disinformation."
According to a poll taken among 1,047 Danes last week, 57% of the nation supports Jyllands-Posten's decision to publish the cartoons, while 31% disagrees. Almost two out of every three men and 61% of those aged between 18 and 25 years supported the decision. But the government is in retreat. The prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, met ambassadors on Friday - something he refused to do when the pictures were originally published. The issue has gone beyond Denmark to become a clash between Western free speech and Islamic taboos - a struggle the latter's protagonists now appear to be winning.
IS BELIEF REALLY THREATENED BY THIS EXPOSURE?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS Author and polemicist.
"I am glad there has been a confrontation. In my old neighbourhood in Finsbury Park there is a mosque run by a man with no hands and an eyepatch who allegedly calls for the murder of non-believers. I am just about willing to tolerate that but I am not willing to put up with their protests that they have been offended by those who speak about, but do not share their beliefs."
MARTIN ROWSON Cartoonist and novelist.
"This is a typical example of religious leaders using the excuse of being offended to go on the attack and to make themselves immune to any kind of criticism. Some followers of Islam are insist-ing on a monopoly of being offended. I am just as offen-ded by their taking offence."
Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.
"I don't think the pictures should have been published. It only widens the gulf between Islam and the West. Maybe they don't appreciate the reverence Muslims have for the prophet."
Convener of the Kirk's Church and Society Council.
"It would be wrong to ban or prevent, through legislation or otherwise, the expression of opinion just because it is in poor taste or causes offence. Belief itself is not threatened or undermined by this sort of exposure. Faith can withstand insult. There will be times when the better judgement is not to publish something when it is known that it will cause offence. But that judgement should never compromise the fundamental value of free speech."
President of the Islamic Centre in Glasgow.
"The people who published these cartoons have taken liberty too far. Muslims hold the prophet sacred in their heart. His face should not be shown."
Professor of the study of religions at the University of Southern Denmark.
"[Muslims] have managed to prove they want to be resp-ected. They don't want to be second-class citizens. They don't want people to say what they like about Muslims."