I've been learning about Islam through a couple of courses, one from The Teaching Company and one via Barnes and Noble University.
For us in the Western world, we wonder, "What's the big deal about comical depictions of The Prophet?" I'll try to explain it as I understand it, and hope my Islamic readers (if I still have any) will correct anything I write here.
Perhaps the best place to start is with a little history. At the time Muhammad was given the Word of God, (Allah - and Allah is the same God as of Judaism and Christianity - more on that in a moment) he was living in Arabia that was populated by people of many faiths, including polytheists who worshipped tribal gods. Often these tribal gods were depicted by images or idols. In contrast, The Word - the Koran or Quran or spelled a number of ways - as given to the Prophet Muhammad taught that there was but One God (Allah), and that He Was the only Infinite and cannot - and should not - be depicted in any manner. This prohibition extends to Muhammed, who is not considered divine but is nonetheless to be emulated by Muslims. Hence, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten posted pictures of Muhammad - and the pictures were derogatory besides - the publication had committed a desecration.
You can read a timeline of the story here
at The Independent.
It may come as a surprise to some people (it did to me, anyway, when I first learned this years ago) that the Islamic Allah is the same as the Christian God and the Judaic God. Islam considers Moses and Abraham to be founding fathers, as in the Judao-Christian religions. The Qu'ran is said to be the final Word of God; it supersedes the Bible, although there are still Biblical passages that are important. Jesus is considered an important prophet in Islam, though it does not recognize his divinity.
There are aspects of Christianity that are considered wrong in Islam. For example, worship of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - appears to be polytheistic to some Muslims. Images of Christ, including crucifixion, are idolatry.
Depictions of revered people are a touchy subject, it seems. Americans may remember the controversy around a photograph of the Crucifixion in a jar of urine. A couple of years ago the Sensei of the Vermont Zen Center objected to a headline which used the phrase "Big Buddha" (a pun on the term "Big Brother") to a story in the local Burlington Free Press. I've seen some of the cartoons that so upsets the Islamic world, and they certainly aren't complimentary.
So what are we to make of this? My opinion of the principles of free speech and freedom of the press remains - these freedoms are paramount (dare I even say it - sacred?). Certainly there are limits, but do the cartoons cross that limit? As I am not Muslim, it is easy for me to say that they do not. What I will say is that the exercise of free speech is not always without a price. If you are going to publish something incendiary (and the Danish paper knew it was), then you should be prepared to weather the firestorm to follow.
I would point out that, in some of the protests, American flags were burned along with Danish ones. We didn't print the images, but somehow we seem to share some of the blame. What does that say of us? It would be easy to dismiss hatred of America with phrases like, "They hate freedom and our way of life!" That is the kind of useless rhetoric that has proven so far to only antagonize some Muslim nations. While we point to the Internet and global press and communications and say, "Gee the world is getting smaller," as a nation we sit behind our nation's borders and pretend everything we do is right, because, to use a phrase from T.H. White, "Might is Right!" Somehow the ability to bomb other countries - particularly small, weak ones - gives us an opinion of ourselves that in reality is blown way out of proportion. I'm not saying we should cow-tow to terrorists (can we please dispense with the simpilistic dualist thinking of talk radio?), but, as Jyllands-Posten is learning now, actions have consequences.
While war with Iraq has been a boon for oil companies (you know, the folks who used to employ our President, Vice-President, and staff), one look at TV news shows that oil is not the only substance that burns.