Many, many words and not a little blood have been spilt over the cartoons of Muhammad that appeared last year in the Danish press, and were then reprinted in newspapers all over Europe.
As far as the cartoons themselves are concerned, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing wholeheartedly with the Bush White House whose spokesman, Scott McClellan, I heard a few days ago drawing what should be a pretty obvious parallel to anyone looking at these images with even the smallest amount of historical sensitivity: the heritage they draw on is that of the nauseating anti-Semitic cartoons that disgraced so many European publications of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Oriental 'other', with its stereotyped and grotesque facial features, set on destroying society.
Those on the right and the left who are praising the Danish newspaper for its courage need to reflect with a little humility on the pedigree from which these cartoons emerge. It is a pedigree which spawned the most terrible chapter of European history.
But the debate is not wholly about these cartoons. It has gone wider to a debate about ideas. And if the continent of Europe has much to be ashamed of, it can also be rightly proud of its post-enlightenment principles, one of the most important of which is that ideas, however deeply held, however devoutly believed, must always be open to be ridiculed. Religious beliefs, religious practices, religious clothing are no different. Questioning, debunking, even laughing at and deriding others' beliefs is a positive part of Europe's heritage. I have no sympathy with those who would seek to curtail this aspect of European society, and certainly none whatsoever for those who call for violence against people who they believed have slandered their religion.
But these cartoons have used genuine and acceptable religious satire as a smokescreen for what they for the most part really are: modern updatings of some of the most vile images ever to have polluted the European media.