The world lies in a tenuous balance between secularism and faith, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance - and now between a Prophet and a cartoonist.
As embassies and passions burn, the Danish cartoons have exposed the fault lines on both the Western and Muslim sides. Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham once wrote that "any venture on the darker shores of satire presupposes readers well enough aware of their own hypocrisies." It's not clear that actors on either end have achieved this clarity.
The cartoons were called for and printed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten after reports that artists were afraid to illustrate works about Islam. But they were drawn without any clever use of satire: the most controversial and wilfully provocative depicts the prophet Mohammad with a lit bomb in his turban.
These are drawings published in the worst of times - a faulty valve straining on the lid of a simmering pressure cooker. The "freedom of expression" rationale European newspapers have given for reprinting them has to be seen in context. Besides the fact that some of these papers cloak right-wing nationalism in "free press' mantras, Europe is generally unfriendly soil for Muslim immigrants. In such a setting, editors lack the inner warning bells to tell them such images have racist connotations and violate community trust.
Intelligent news editors in more racially tolerant contexts would know how incendiary it is to link the founder of one of the world's leading monotheistic religions with terrorist violence.
But on the other side, Muslims need to be more at ease and informed about their faith. Extremism has hijacked Islam. The Muslim masses have shown apathy and fear in the face of this radicalism. As a cartoonist, I've been as threatened and censored by fearful Arab and Pakistani editors as by backers of Israeli government heavy-handedness and the "war on terror."
Many Muslim editors hide behind euphemisms and hesitate to risk critical thought. On the global stage, a case in point was the Taliban's wanton desecration of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. No moderates demonstrated against Islamic fundamentalism when these statues were demolished. On the other hand, no Buddhists rose up to commit acts of bloodshed or coercion in response to the destruction.
While right-wing groups stir up Islamophobia in Europe, Muslims are stumbling in denial over the escalating role of their own extremists.
Arguably, a simplistic reason for all this fervour is the depiction of the Prophet's face. But what is a face to a caricaturist? For me, drawing a face is not necessarily about representing features. A caricature does not have to be facially accurate. It is not the real portrayal of a person, but more of an impression of the subject.
And here lies the problem: a cartoonist from Denmark and a Muslim arsonist can only reflect on what they know.
And what do they know? The Dane equates the Prophet with violence, while the extremist Muslim has been inculcated to kill the Dane for depicting the Prophet.
Nowhere in the Koran does it say to kill sacrilegious cartoonists.
Shahid Mahmood, a T.O. cartoonist, was formaer editorial cartoonist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. His work appears in numerous publications, and is syndicated with the New York Times Press Syndicate.