The matter might have been of little significance if it had not been magnified by other issues that have been festering in the longer term. 1) There is increasing tension between large Muslim minorities and the host societies in Western Europe. The Muslims are perceived as wanting the host society to adopt their standards, rather than vice versa—the general pattern of immigrants who, the logic of the situation suggests, must assimilate the core values of their new countries. Until recently, European intellectuals and the authorities in those nations have tended to look the other way, even when the oppression of women and homophobia were involved. Implicated in this neglect are political correctness, ethical relativism, and simple cowardice and laziness. Now the mood seems to be changing: hence the cartoons. 2) The other underlying factor is the perception among Muslims that the main purpose of the Iraq war is to weaken Islam. Polls have shown this view to be prevalent from Morocco to Indonesia, and it is clearly shared by many Muslims in Western Europe as well.
These two factors created a tinderbox in which an otherwise somewhat trivial set of drawings has created a furor that ricochets from one country to another.
Here, somewhat edited, is the Wikipedia account of the origins of the affair.
"The Muhammad cartoons controversy began after complaints were made about twelve editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons appeared in a major Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. Some of the cartoons were reprinted in the Norwegian Christian journal Magazinet on January 10, 2006, and later in the German newspaper Die Welt, the French daily France Soir, and several other European newspapers. In response to an outcry from the Muslim community, Raymond Lakah, the Franco-Egyptian (and Roman Catholic) owner of France Soir, terminated the employment of the chief editor.
"The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, were meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty of Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen to find artists to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad, for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of Muhammad as a measure against idolatry; however, in the past there have been non-satirical depictions of Muhammad by Muslims [note the contradiction in this sentence]. Although Jyllands-Posten maintains that the drawings were an exercise in free speech, many people (Muslim and otherwise) in Denmark and elsewhere view them as provocative, offensive, disrespectful, blasphemic and islamophobic."
"In reaction to the articles, several death threats have been made, resulting in two newspaper cartoonists reportedly going into hiding, and the newspaper enhancing its security precautions. The foreign ministries of eleven Islamic countries demanded action from the Danish government, and Libya eventually closed its embassy in Denmark in protest after the government refused to censure the newspaper or apologize. The Danish prime minister said, ‘The government refuses to apologize because the government does not control the media or a newspaper outlet; that would be in violation of the freedom of speech.’ A large consumer boycott was organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere in other Arabic speaking countries. Recently the foreign ministers of seventeen Islamic countries renewed calls for the Danish government to punish those responsible for the cartoons, and to ensure that such cartoons are not published again. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark. Protests have also taken place against the cartoons."
A newspaper account asserts the following "Under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad, the faith's founder and messenger of God, is blasphemy, including depictions that are not negative." Such claims are historically unfounded, as there are plenty of depictions of the Prophet in Islamic illuminated manuscripts, whose orthodoxy has never been questioned. In passively accepting such generalizations from poorly informed Muslim scholars the press is not doing its job.
Readers can verify the truth of my assertions by acquiring a handsome book. I was delighted to see that a wonderful facsimile is still available from Amazon at an advantageous price. It is The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet, published by Braziller, with an essay by Marie-Rose Seguy. Made in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1436 the original, a text of the Miraj Nameh, is one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of all time, with much use of gold and a ravishing ultramarine blue. The Prophet is shown no less than 56 times, sometimes in the company of various other worthies, including, Adam, David and Solomon, and John the Baptist. Contrasting with some other depictions, Muhammad's face appears in every instance, unveiled.
(The Miraj Nameh, of which we have a Turkish version here, is sometimes thought to be one of the sources of Dante's Divine Comedy--a claim that is mistaken in my view.)
If you possibly can, get this book for the art. To be sure, artistic beauty is by no means an attestation of theological truth. If it were, we'd all be worshipping Aphrodite and Apollo.