It began last September.

Danish author Kaare Bluitgen couldn’t find an illustrator for his biography of Muhammad. Fundamentalist Muslims frown on depictions of the prophet and—in one of many European cases of self-censorship since the November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh—artists feared a reaction. Europe, you see, isn’t the liberal paradise you think it is, or knew it to be 10 or 20 years ago. At this very moment, European liberalism is caught in a steadily intensifying struggle with fundamentalist Muslim censoriousness—call it creeping Sharia. Concerned about this trend and eager to make a statement about free speech, Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, invited illustrators to submit drawings of Muhammad. On September 30, the paper printed 12 of them.

Most of the cartoons, frankly, were lame and witless. A couple (notably one depicting Muhammad as a terrorist) were provocative in the way editorial cartoons are supposed to be. But compared to the lusty Christian baiting in movies like Life of Brian—or in various artworks by Gilbert and George, among others—they were pretty tame stuff.

When artists bait Christians, the Christians (at most) wave signs and send out press releases. When Danish Muslims saw the Muhammad cartoons, they went ballistic. Thousands protested in Copenhagen. Death threats were issued. On October 12, a group of Muslim ambassadors demanded a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He refused. “It is so self-evidently clear what principles Danish society is based upon,” he said later, “that there is nothing to have a meeting about.”

Now, in today’s Europe—where cultural appeasement by political and media elites of the continent’s largely unintegrated and antidemocratic Muslim minority is standard practice—Fogh Rasmussen’s blunt stance was encouraging. Yet Danish Muslim leaders stepped up pressure—claiming that the cartoons had wounded the delicate sensibilities of a billion of their co-religionists around the world—and won allies. In December, Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, promised that “action” on the cartoons would be forthcoming. (Apparently free speech was not on her list of human rights.) The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers condemned the Danish media’s “intolerance.”

In statements read by many as apologies, both Fogh Rasmussen and Jyllands-Posten Editor Carsten Juste said they regretted that Muslims had been offended. But they weren’t contrite enough to satisfy critics. In late January, Saudi Arabia—top funder of Europe’s radical mosques and Muslim schools—pushed for a boycott of Danish goods. Hacker attacks originating in the Middle East closed down Danish newspaper websites and blogs. Terrorists ordered Scandinavians out of Gaza. Palestinians burned Danish flags. Mobs attacked and burned Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut. Every day, it seemed things couldn’t get worse—and they kept getting worse.

Many Europeans agree with Kofi Annan that freedom “should always be exercised in a way that fully respects… religious beliefs, “ and with Sunday Times (UK) columnist Simon Jenkins that the main question here is “whether we truly want to share a world in peace with those who have values and religious beliefs different from our own.” What’s called for, they say, is “respect,” “restraint,” and “responsibility.” And, above all, “sensitivity.” For them, this is simply a case of the powerful mocking the faith of the weak.

On the contrary, what’s happening here is that a gang of bullies—led by a country, Saudi Arabia, where Bibles are forbidden, Christians tortured, Jews routinely labeled “apes and pigs” in the state-controlled media, and apostasy from Islam punished by death—is trying to compel a tiny democracy to live by its own theocratic rules. To succumb to pressure from this gang would simply be to invite further pressure, and lead to further concessions—not just by Denmark but by all of democratic Europe. And when they’ve tamed Europe, they’ll come after America.

After all, the list of Western phenomena that offend the sensibilities of many Muslims is a long one—ranging from religious liberty, sexual equality, and the right of gay people not to have a wall dropped on them, to music, alcohol, dogs, and pork. After a few Danish cartoons, what’s next?

Make no mistake, this is no isolated incident. It’s one step in a long-term effort by extreme Muslim forces to erode Western liberties and turn free, affluent countries into mirror images of their own dysfunctional dictatorships. “Muslims have a dream of living in an Islamic society,” declared a Danish Muslim leader in 2000. “This dream will surely be fulfilled in Denmark…. We will eventually be a majority.” (Or as a T-shirt popular among young Muslims in Stockholm puts it: “2030—then we take over.”) Even after the bombings in Madrid and London and the riots in Paris, many European leaders continue to be in denial about this effort; others, as eager as Neville Chamberlain at Munich to “keep the peace,” seem already to have chosen a policy of gradual surrender, accompanied by flurries of sycophantic praise for Islam and apology for Western liberties.

Bat Ye’or, a Jewish Egyptian woman whose splendid 2005 book Eurabia is a veritable catalog of the European political establishment’s systematic toadying to autocratic Muslim governments, has a name for this toadying: “dhimmitude,” a reference to the historical Islamic practice of tolerating infidels so long as they accept their role as “dhimmis,” i.e., second-class citizens without rights under Muslim law. Clearly, many agitators saw Jylland-Posten’s cartoons as an opportunity to nudge an already largely passive and sycophantic Europe a step closer to full-fledged dhimmi status.

No, most Danes don’t want to be dhimmis: In poll results released in late January, 79 percent of them said Fogh Rasmussen owed nobody an apology. (This is, let it be remembered, the only European country that stood up to the Nazi “final solution” by ferrying its own Jews to safety.) But millions of Europeans have already internalized Islamic taboos and accepted the need to curb liberties in order to “keep the peace.” For them, Muslim rage—and its expression in acts of violence and death threats—is already an accepted part of life that is simply not to be questioned or criticized; in their view, the fault lies with those who provoke the rage by failing to be good enough dhimmis. “There is something wrong with a democracy,” read a typical viewer SMS on a Norwegian news discussion program, “where an editor can put the whole country in danger!” EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson was one of many who spoke of outraged Muslims as if they were a force of nature—every re-publication of the cartoons by other European newspapers, he said, “is adding fuel to the flames.” Across Europe, the same kind of leftists who reflexively cheer art for outraging Christians now uphold Muslims’ sacred right not to be offended.

For me, the most positive surprise in all this has been the courage with which many European editors—some of whom I’d considered dhimmis—have reprinted the cartoons in a show of support for free speech. Most impressive of all, Le Monde, widely viewed as French dhimmi central, ran its own witty drawing. For this American, the most disgraceful development has been a statement by the U.S. State Department suggesting that the U.S. stands alongside Islamist agitators and against Denmark—perhaps our most loyal ally in the struggle against Islamist terror. “After this act of betrayal,” Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard e-mailed me, “one might well ask why we should keep our troops in Iraq and increase our presence in Afghanistan.” (Later, in an interview with Jyllands-Posten, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said that the U.S.’s posture was one of “unconditional solidarity” with Denmark. Let’s hope so.)

As for Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, he said the other day that European integration “is perhaps an impossible project. This affair shows that there is a gulf between Western man and the Muslim world that is greater than the Grand Canyon.” As the unrest has grown exponentially by the day, this truth has become increasingly hard to deny.

Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within will be available from Doubleday in February.