Why are only some faiths sacrosanct?

I’ve always agreed with H.L. Mencken that “you should respect the other guy’s religion, but only to the extent that you respect his view that his wife is beautiful and his children smart”. (“I believe”, he wrote somewhere, “that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking”. Amen.)

So the plight of believers who get all worked up because someone has offended their religious sensibilities leaves me cold. I expect the police to prosecute, in due course, the fanatics who were waving placards about beheading their fellow-citizens (though I think the police were wise not to arrest them on the spot that day), and I will be very pissed off if they don’t. But Nick Cohen makes an interesting point in his column today — which deals with the way our mass media blithely offend Catholic and Jewish sensibilities but back off when it comes to our Muslim brethren. “You can’t be a little bit free”, he observes. “If you are not willing to offend Islamists who may kill you, what excuse do you have for offending Catholics, the families of murdered children and British troops who won’t?” Precisely. No wonder people conclude that violence — or the threat of it — is the only thing that really works. That’s not to say that fear of being murdered is not a rational sentiment. But it does rather expose the contemporary cant about the importance of a ‘free’ press — it’s free only when there’s little real danger.

I haven’t seen the offending Danish cartoons, btw (because they weren’t published in the British media, as far as I can tell), but the current issue of Private Eye prints a useful textual description of each. (Only in the print edition, alas.)

Update: Lots of helpful emails, pointing to locations on the Web where the cartoons, or accounts of them, are posted. There’s a good Wikipedia page on the whole business. Many thanks to Werner, Ben and others for the leads.