The vociferous and, at times, incendiary uproar that suddenly erupted in early February with the publication in Paris of 12 “satanic drawings,” supposedly caricaturing Muhammad, offered the world one more proof of the extent to which, thanks to radio, television, and computers, our rapidly shrinking planet has now become a global village. It also offered us a classic illustration of how a basically extraneous “accident” can fan the winds of discontent into a raging hurricane.

To understand how a relatively minor incident—last September’s publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 “blasphemous” cartoons—could later assume such volcanic proportions, it is essential to go back almost one year before the initial publication to the fateful date of November 2, 2004. On that day, the Dutch film director and journalist Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death in Amsterdam by an Islamic fanatic of Moroccan origin for having helped a member of parliament of Muslim origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, produce a controversial film denouncing the practice of forced marriages imposed by Muslim men on their helpless women-folk. The assassination, which shook Holland to her foundations, had profound repercussions not only in the neighboring country of Denmark but in slightly more distant Norway.

Already outraged by this second murderous assault—it had been preceded by the assassination of Dutch political leader Pim Fortuyn—many liberal-minded Danes and Norwegians were further shocked, like the Dutch, by the bloodthirsty language used during his trial in June-July 2005 by Mohammed Bouyeri, who claimed that he had had every right to stab Theo van Gogh to death, as a well-deserved punishment meted out to a “blasphemer and an infidel.” They were also disturbed to learn, shortly after Bouyeri had been sentenced to life imprisonment on July 27, that Theo van Gogh’s 14-year-old son, Lieuwe, had been twice assaulted by Moroccan youngsters.

It is in this general context of fear and intimidation provoked by Muslims that one must place the events that occurred in Denmark during the following month of September. Frustrated because he could not find a single Danish artist willing to run the risk of illustrating a children’s book on the life of Muhammad, left-wing writer Käre Bluitgen issued a public protest, challenging the artists of his country to display a minimum of courage. Irked by this taunt, Fleming Rose, editor of the culture section of Copenhagen’s largest-selling daily, Jyllands-Posten, appealed to a professional guild of illustrators and cartoonists working regularly for newspapers, magazines, and theater publications. The appeal garnered 12 drawings, whose publication on two inside pages of the September 30, 2005, issue of Jyllands-Posten were destined four months later to set a large part of the Muslim world ablaze.

Later, Fleming Rose explained that he had not asked the 12 artists to draw cartoons. “I asked them to draw Mohammed as they saw him. In no case did I ask them to draw a caricature or to mock him.” Anyone who has taken the trouble to examine these 12 drawings should be prepared to take Fleming Rose at his word. Most of them were singularly inept, the work of artistic hacks lacking in imagination. Only three or four of them could be regarded as cartoons—beginning with a drawing of a cloud-borne Muhammad protesting to a file of upward-climbing Muslim “martyrs” (i.e., suicide bombers), “Stop stop we ran out of virgins!” and finishing with the portrayal of a bearded and steely-eyed Muhammad wearing a black turban from which protrudes an already lit, bomb-like fuse.

If these drawings had simply been presented as different representations of Islamic clerics, they would not later have aroused such furious passions among devout Muslims. The fatal error committed by Rose, or perhaps by a more senior editor of Jyllands-Posten, was to have present- ed them under the heading, “Twelve Faces of Mohammed.” But was it an “error”? Rose himself accompanied the drawings with this explicit commentary:

Modern secular society is reject- ed by certain Moslems. They in- sist on the display of a special con- sideration for their own religious sentiments. This is not compati- ble with a secular democracy and freedom of expression, where one must be ready to be scorned, made fun of, ridiculed.

In effect, this was a challenge issued to certain Muslims, calling on them to do what they have always been loath to do: subordinate their Islamic beliefs and principles to the overriding dictates of a secular society.

The first public reactions were not long in coming. On October 14, several thousand outraged Muslims demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen. Several days later, the ambassadors of 11 Muslim countries asked to be received by the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who refused on the grounds that the Danish government could not be held responsible for the actions of an independent newspaper it in no way controlled and that complaints of this kind should logically be dealt with in a court of law.

On December 1, eight of the “guilty” artists staged a private meeting with five prominent members of Denmark’s Muslim community. “The discussion was very good, and there was no question of excuses having to be made,” Mogens Blicher Bjerrgård, president of the Federation of Danish Journalists, later told a correspondent of the French daily Le Monde.

We may never know exactly what, meanwhile, had been going on behind the scenes. Before the first week of December was up, a few irate Muslims in distant Pakistan were threatening death to the 12 Danish artists, who from then on refused to be interviewed and went, more or less, underground. By this time, at least one delegation of Danish imams had traveled to the Middle East to arouse their fellow Muslims to concerted action. According to a report later published in the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, the imams brought with them not only the 12 “blasphemous” drawings but others they had added of their own invention. One of them, depicting Muhammad with the horns of a devil sprouting from his temples, showed him holding little girls in his hands, over the caption, “The pedophile Prophet Muhammad.” Another showed a Muslim prostrating himself in prayer, while a dog tries to sodomize him from behind, over the caption, “This is why Muslims pray.” A third displayed a man wearing the snout-mask of a pig, accompanied by the caption, “This is the true face of Muhammad.”

On January 10 of this year, just two days before the publication of the Ekstra Bladet exposé, Vebjørn Selbekk, editor in chief of the Norwegian paper Magazinet, decided to publish the 12 Danish drawings in his turn, declaring that he was “fed up with the erosion of freedom of expression that has been going on surreptitiously.” Six days later, after receiving death threats, including e-mailed pictures of a burned body, he agreed to remove the “blasphemous” drawings from the newspaper’s website.

This essentially Scandinavian affair would not have mushroomed into a truly global uproar had the Paris daily France- Soir not chosen, on February 1, to publish all 12 of the Danish drawings (on pages two and three) with a front-page cartoon showing the representatives of four different religions floating on a cloud, while one of them, with a halo over his head, says to his turbaned neighbor, “Stop grousing, Mohammed . . . here we’ve all of us been caricatured.” For it was only after France-Soir had published the flam- boyantly advertised cartoons that the conservative Berlin newspaper Die Welt published a front-page reproduction of the drawing of the bomb-turbaned Muhammad, quickly followed by other newspapers in Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. From then on, what had begun as a minor Scandinavian affair became a European scandal.

It often takes little more than an accident to transform a controversy into a howling storm; in this case, it was the parlous financial situation of France-Soir. Founded shortly after the liberation of Paris in 1944 by a journalistic genius named Pierre Lazareff, France-Soir was for years a top-selling newspaper with a circulation which, in 1961, was over one million copies per day. But after Lazareff’s death a few years later, the newspaper rapidly declined in popularity and significance, finally degenerating into a cheap tabloid threatened by bankruptcy.

When the question of publishing the Danish drawings came up for discussion, the editor in chief, Pierre Lefranc, was distinctly lukewarm. But he was overruled by members of his staff, who felt that this was a golden opportunity for pulling off a journalistic coup. In this petty, not to say sordid, calculation, they were undoubtedly right; from one day to the next, the tabloid’s dismal circulation rose from 45,000 to over 60,000 copies.

Lefranc was promptly fired by France- Soir’s irate owner, a Franco-Egyptian millionaire named Raymond Lakah, who happens to be a Roman Catholic. By that time, however, the damage had been done, and French, along with Danish and Norwegian, flags were being burnt by irate Muslims in the Gaza Strip.

An entire book could be written about the fascinating discussions and debates that were immediately provoked in France by the publication of these “satanic drawings” (a headline used by the left-wing daily Libération). Interestingly enough, not all cartoonists interviewed favored untrammeled freedom of expression. But the general mood of despondency was well expressed by Jean Plantu, who for more than 30 years has been a brilliant cartoonist for Le Monde.

People don’t realize to what extent, save for the Catholic Church, which one can slap and cuff and which, no matter what is said, takes it fairly well, it has become impossible to criticize religious persons.

In another interview, he recalled how, during a recent visit to Iran, he was struck by a signal lack of reciprocity. Only too happy to draw savage drawings of Christian “infidels,” Muslim cartoonists would not tolerate the slightest criticism of their own religion.

More than a year ago, a Spanish historian had made the same observation to me, but in a far more pointed manner: “What we need to stabilize our relations with the Moslem world is a minimum of reciprocity. Every time an imam or a Moslem group asks for permission to build a mosque, we should insist that the Saudi Arabians, who supply the money, should allow a Christian church to be built in their own country. That would be a genuine and healthy reciprocity. Instead, all we do is to go on capitulating.”