If you produce a Bible pickled in urine, you might be a candidate for the Turner Prize. If you used to be a Catholic but left the church claiming to have been maltreated, and publicly burn a Bible whilst yelling "I hate Jesus", you might get on the local TV. If you make a movie depicting Jesus having an affair with Mary Magdalene, in full frontal nudity, you might have a hit movie. But if you burn a Koran, you'll be arrested. If you depict Mohammed having an affair or naked, you might be arrested, and you'll certainly be condemned by politicians. No-one will say you are bravely standing up against bullies and oppressors – as they might well say about the ex-Catholic.
If you mock the beliefs of Young Earth Creationists or Chakra healers, you might get your own newspaper column. But if you mock the beliefs of Muslims, politicians will say how strongly they disapprove of you, and though they will declare their support for the principle of freedom of speech, behind the scenes they will put pressure on your newspaper or web-page hoster to take down the offending item.
Why do they do that? Why, when there are riots and murders in response to people's expression of their constitutional free speech liberties, do politicians always say how much they disapprove of the person's actions? They do it, of course, because they are afraid of inciting more violence and because they are personally afraid of becoming targets. But every time a politician kow-tows in response to murder and mayhem, she reinforces the notion that there is something special about Islam that means the same rules (quite properly) applied to other religions do not apply to it.
Mainstream Muslims (not all Muslims, of course – there are a few that prefer free speech – but the mainstream Muslim line offered publicly is as follows) tell us that the image of Mohammed is special to Muslims (they don't mean Shi'ites, but let's set that point aside), that the Koran is holy. But do people think Christians are less insulted by the denigration of their God than Muslims of their prophet?
No politician ever thinks of saying "I protect such-and-such an artist's right to free speech, but disapprove of the anti-Christian / anti-Sikh / anti-Buddhist nature of his work." Why? We all know the reason. It's because Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists around the world don't engage in murder and mayhem in response to such things. So politicians imagine their inconsistency is about law and order – akin to disapproving of someone provoking a crowd into a riot. But the message offered is that Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists want religious protection, they should murder more people and destroy more property. That's not a healthy message.
Muslims around the world need to get it: for those of us that aren't Muslims, the Koran is not a holy book, so if someone wants to smear pig-fat on it and burn it, that's up to him. That's not how I happen to get my kicks, but I see no more reason to ritually declare I disapprove of someone doing that than I would of someone smearing pig-fat on a copy of the Lord of the Rings and burning that – indeed, probably rather less reason. And those of us that do not believe in Islam believe that Mohammed is not a prophet of God. So if someone wants to depict Mohammed naked, or claim he had affairs, or say he didn't get on with his parents, that's up to them. That's how things work in Western countries. If Muslims in non-Western countries don't like it, tough!
Western politicians need to man up on these issues. The people abusing the Koran or Mohammed are really declaring "I am not afraid", when by doing so they are at some genuine personal risk from wicked people who seek to oppress and murder. As politicians and commentators we don't have to praise these people standing up for freedom of thought and expression against the bullies. But their ritual condemnation is weak, weak, weak.