The Muslim world is up in arms over cartoons. A bizarre incident involving caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish daily paper has angered Islamic leaders, escalated to international proportions and threatens to spark legitimate conflict. Amid threats of violence, Denmark must now stand in defense of its most puerile citizens.

The trouble began in September when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons depicting Mohammed, including one in which the prophet’s turban is shaped like a bomb. These cartoons were solicited from various artists as an exercise in self-censorship, apparently to see how far cartoonists would go in styling the Islamic holy figure.

Since any depiction of Mohammed is considered blasphemous, there is little question that the paper was tempting trouble by publishing the drawings. The editors obviously sought to raise a few eyebrows, or perhaps even tousle some Middle Eastern plumage. Instead, they provoked a major diplomatic snafu.

Last Friday, a Saudi Arabian prayer leader condemned the images in a widely-broadcast sermon, igniting uproar. Within days, a tempest was brewing in a Danish demi-tasse. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark; Lybia closed its embassy entirely. Protestors in Gaza have begun torching images of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. A telephoned bomb threat forced evacuation of the Jyllands-Posten offices on Tuesday, shortly after a militant Islamic Web site pledged violent reprisals. Danish citizens have been urged to avoid Arab nations, several of which are now arranging to boycott Danish goods.

Regardless of its modest origin, this incident has spun out of control: what began as a publishing gaffe has become a serious international imbroglio.

What can be done to resolve the mess? The cartoons can hardly be un-published. No remedy exists for any damage they may have caused; the only real option is to beg the pardon of Muslims worldwide and hope the issue dies down. On Tuesday the Jyllands-Posten issued a lengthy front-page apology in Danish, English and Arabic, but this gesture had the appearance of being too little, too late. It failed to calm the rising storm, since the target of reproach has since shifted — Arab nations and Muslim groups are demanding a full apology from the Danish government.

Prime Minister Rasmussen has thus far stood firm, insisting that his government cannot apologize on behalf of an independent newspaper that acted within the limits of Danish law. Good for him; he would be wrong to concede.

However ill-advised these cartoons may have been, and however unfortunate their impact on the Muslim community, they were nonetheless the work of a free press. Since the images were not deemed hateful by the courts, to backpedal as a nation from their appearance in the news is to contradict the fundamental notion of free expression.

In principle, defending free speech is easy. But in practice, doing so almost always involves wading into a bitter quarrel where repugnant views have been expressed, and opposing those who would silence them. And while we are all no doubt familiar with Voltaire’s distinction between embracing an opinion and defending the right to put it forth, it’s surprising how easily, when tempers flare, these blur. Try it out: Defend free speech in any instance where it is actually in peril, and you will surely be accused of siding with the provocateur.

Nonetheless, if we are serious about freedom of expression, we accept this risk; we must be willing to enter the fray to defend the expression of views we do not endorse. As Noam Chomsky says, to support free speech in any meaningful sense means doing so precisely for views you despise.

Denmark’s record of religious freedom and tolerance speaks for itself, and any who seek to paint the government as systemically hostile to Islam are likely to come up empty-handed. The sudden vilification of Denmark is particularly absurd considering the fact that demonstrated anti-Muslim hostility in the US media has prompted no boycott of FOX or McDonald’s, and Israeli goods continue to line shelves across the Mideast despite that nation’s penchant for bloody clashes with Arab populations. The coordinated Muslim response to a Danish cartoon is impressive, but oddly misdirected.

Nevertheless, the chaos is real. In refusing to issue a national apology, Prime Minister Rasmussen will be accused of brinksmanship, stubbornness and, in all likelihood, endorsing religious discrimination. He must remain resolute — for while the appearance of these images was regrettable, they do not empower him to deem freedom of expression a flexible concept. Braving shampoo boycotts, bomb threats and deserted embassies, the Danes must now stand fast.

But when this fracas settles, that Danish newspaper really does deserve a slap. Free speech or not, we accept that certain topics — the Holocaust, for instance — are sure to irritate and are best left alone. Jyllands-Posten editors have flouted taboo, set off an international spat, and roused us, reluctant, to their defense. It gives me no pleasure to martyr such boors on the altar of free speech, but as is so often the case, it must be done. You can’t help but sigh.

Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.