BRUSSELS -- Four months ago, Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper published 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. At first, the cartoons elicited little interest.
But in December Danish Muslims circulated them in the Islamic world. They added two particularly inflammatory drawings that had never been published by the paper -- one involved a pig's nose and the other an indecent act with a dog. Street protests erupted from Lahore to Gaza. Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, calling for an apology and punishment of the editors. Danish products are being boycotted in the Middle East, where state-controlled media speak darkly of a conspiracy against Islam. Palestinian terrorists have declared Danes and other Europeans as legitimate targets. Journalists at Jyllands-Posten have received death threats. Danish flags, whose design is based on a Christian cross, are being burned. So much for religious respect.
For four months, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Jyllands-Posten staunchly refused to apologize. But this week, with little support from the rest of Europe against this orchestrated assault on Denmark's press freedom, the paper caved in, much to the government's relief.
Were the cartoons disrespectful? Certainly. In Islam the drawing of any image of Muhammad is forbidden and so religious Muslims might feel offended. As might millions of Christians when Jesus is depicted as gay or defiled in a thousand other ways every day. But that's what letters to the editor are for.
Moreover, the cartoons didn't mock Islam as such but its abuse by militant Muslims. One cartoon showed Muhammad with a turban in the form of a bomb. The issue, though, is much larger than the question of how to balance press freedom with religious sensibilities; it goes to the heart of the conflict with radical Islam. The Islamists demand no less than absolute supremacy for their religion -- and not only in the Muslim world but wherever Muslims may happen to reside. That's why they see no hypocrisy in their demand for "respect" for Islam while the simple display of a cross or a Star of David in Saudi Arabia is illegal. Infidels simply don't have the same rights.
The murder in 2004 of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist in Amsterdam demonstrated the kind of risks critics of Islam are exposed to these days -- even in Europe. Fundamentalists can find good cover -- and followers -- among the millions of Muslim immigrants on the Continent. Jyllands-Posten decided to publish the cartoons after complaints from an author that he could not find an illustrator who dared to draw images of Muhammad for his book. It was this atmosphere of fear and intimidation that the newspaper wanted to highlight. The Muslim reaction to these pictures only confirmed how relevant the topic is.
Using their combined economic muscle, death threats and street protests, a combination of state and nonstate actors are slowly exporting to Europe the Middle East's repressive system. What Jyllands-Posten's editors are enduring is not unlike what dissidents under communism had to go through. The Islamists can't send the journalists to a gulag but they can silence them by threatening to kill them. Bomb threats twice forced the journalists to flee their offices this week.
Reminiscent of Stalinist show trials, the paper was in the end forced to show public remorse. The cartoons "were not in variance with Danish law but have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize," the paper said Monday. "I would have never chosen to depict religious symbols in this way," the previously defiant Mr. Rasmussen added. But just like the original show trials, the "admission of guilt" won't cut the Danes much slack. Muslim organizations in Denmark rejected it as not "sincere" and the death threats, protests and boycotts continue.
Just as was the case with communism, Islamic totalitarian impulses find their apologists in the West. Last Monday in Qatar, former President Bill Clinton decried the "totally outrageous cartoons against Islam." EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson said the journalists "have to understand the offense caused by cartoons of this nature."
The support shown in the past few days by newspapers around Europe reprinting the cartoons is very welcome. But the vast majority of Europe's media didn't join the battle. And so in the end, it was too little, too late, coming just after the Danes were forced to "confess."
"Those who have won are dictatorships in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, where they cut criminals' hands and give women no rights," Jyllands-Posten's editor in chief, Carsten Juste, told the AP.
But what really sealed the Danes' fate -- and possibly Europe's -- was the lack of solidarity from other governments. The European Union likes to call "emergency meetings" for the most trivial topics, from farm subsidies to VAT rates. But when one of their smallest members came under attack for nothing else than being a European country, for defending the values and norms the EU is based on, there was nothing but silence from Europe's capitals. That silence has been heard and understood in the Muslim world.