A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, caused a right stink in September 2005 by publishing cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad; one of which depicted him as having a bomb hidden in his turban.
Boom and, indeed, boom.
Unsurprisingly, this caused widespread offence throughout the Muslim world. The representation of Muhammad is forbidden under Islamic law under any circumstances, so an illustration of the prophet portrayed as some kind of suicide-bomber was always going to raise a few eyebrows, to say the least. Cue the closure of the Libyan embassy in Denmark, the recall of the Saudi Arabian ambassador, the burning of Danish flags in Gaza and the threat of a boycott of Danish products across the Middle East. (Although seeing as Denmark’s chief exports are lager and bacon this strikes me as something of a futile gesture.)
Ironically, the paper had commissioned the work for a piece on self-censorship and freedom of expression prompted by the publication of a children’s book about Muhammad, whose artists had only been prepared to provide illustrations anonymously for fear of reprisals (i.e. Salman Rushdie forced into hiding after writing The Satanic Verses; Theo van Gogh knifed to death on the streets of Amsterdam after making a film about attitudes to women in Islam).
The newspaper has apologised for any offence that was caused. The Danish government, however, has not issued any apology, despite pressure from Muslim nations and organisations. Nor should they. This is a fundamental principle of western liberal democracy – we operate a free press and media, independent from government interference or influence, which can publish anything it sees fit, within the limits of the law. The pictures were in poor taste (and if anyone wants to see them, they can do so here) and politically insensitive (the implication that Muslim=terrorist is a slander on millions of people), especially in this day and age. But you can bet that they would have had no qualms running any satirical cartoons about Jesus – nor would they have faced much of a backlash if they had done so. The only reason they would have decided not to publish would have been due to unease about a potential reaction by Muslim extremists: self-censorship through fear, in other words.
Interestingly, in London today, people have gathered outside parliament to protest against the proposed ‘religious hatred bill’, which intends to sanitise speech to the extent that it becomes an offence to ridicule another person’s belief. Which is absurd. People have the right to be offended, and the right to ask for an apology. Nothing more.