"Why are Muslims so touchy?"Perplexed westerners are asking this question again. I'll take a stab at the answer.
As you might expect, there is no single reason but a bundle of factors at play. Here's my list, in no particular order:
1) Many Muslims aren't yet desensitized to global media.
Many Muslims grew up in a relatively sheltered culture and they are now hearing and seeing things that shock their sensitivity. This is compared to the west where most of us have become desensitized to outrageous and offensive speech. After things like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," it takes a whole lot to ruffle our Christian feathers. Many Muslims are not yet so jaded.
2) Agitators effectively use new media
Agitators have shown themselves to be quite savvy in using mobile phone messaging, web sites and emails to whip-up these controversies. In the "cartoon controversy" they seeded-in bogus cartoons that were even more inflammatory than the originals. It's likely that an even more inflammatory "quote" from the pope is being circulated via cell phones and emails.
3) Politicians exploit situation
Typically there are two kinds of political exploitation of these events, both cruel and callous since lives are often lost in the process:
a) In-power leaders who need a populist boost. Jew and America bashing are a sure-fire way to score some points with the masses. Being seen as a protector of the faith is also helpful.
b) Out-of-power wannabe leaders who feel that social unrest weakens those in-power.
These politicians organize rallies and make strong emotional appeals which can then spin out-of-control. (see #8, below)
4) A general sense that Islam is under attack
Many (most?) Muslims are convinced that their faith and culture are under attack and they resent it deeply. This message is a persistent theme in sermons and media. This is very similar to the sentiments among American Christian conservatives. Remember Fox News' "War on Christmas!" campaign last year? It like that but even more so.
5) A strong cultural sense of honor and shame
It is probably safe to generalize that most cultures over here have a strong sense of honor. As you go further east, the "shame-based" culture comes into play. Neither of those cultures casually shrug-off insults.
4a & 5a) Residual negative effects of colonialism.
I have become convinced that one can't overstate the lasting negative effect of colonialism. Westerners -- especially former-colonialists -- rarely understant this. People here still have a very visceral sense of being dominated and dishonored, aggravating #3 and #4 above. This is especially acute when you have a theology which says your religion should rightfully be ruling, not serving.
6) A very different view of free speech
It's widely believed that the government has a responsibility to ban and punish religiously offensive speech. Most Muslims didn't see the cartoon crisis as a free speech issue but one of religious denigration (which is not protected speech). Since the Danish government did not punish the newspaper, it too was liable. This is why a whole-country boycott made sense to those over here. In the west, this was widely seen as unfairly punishing of a whole country for the actions of a few.
7) Personal responsibility to defend the faith
This ventures into Islamic theology of which I'm not qualified to speak. But I think it is safe to say that defending the faith is a religious duty. Clearly, Muslims generally believe in severe punishment for blasphemy and a small (but vocal!) minority of Muslims feel it is their duty to mete out this punishment.
8) A group (aka "mob") mentality.
The cultures I've seen over here are much more likely to "take to the streets" when something bad happens. I don't begin to understand it. When I've broached the subject, people got touchy so I dropped it. In my culture, when a crisis breaks out, we tend to stay glued to our TVs. Here they are more likely to rally and protest. Needless to say, mobs are not known for their rational behavior.
Let me point out: Most Muslims don't mob. But westerners can easily get the wrong impression since mobs make for good TV. For example: after 911, the cable channels repeatedly ran a clip of Arabs dancing in the street. What they didn't show was the vast (vast!) majority of Muslims who were peacefully sitting at home watching in horror and shock, just like you. I was in a 95% Muslim country at the time (a country famous for radicalism) and I saw no dancing or celebrating. I'm sure it happened but it was not widespread, as TV made it seem.
So, there's my explanation. I know it isn't as satisfying as the simplistic conservative explanation, "They hate us for our freedoms" or a blanket indictment of Islam by the Religious Right.
As liberals and as Christians, you know that most Muslims are good, average people deserving of our understanding and respect. They aren't a bunch of irrational people running around in violent mobs like the bigots would have you believe.