In order for an insult to be effective, two things must occur: the insult must have at least a kernel of truth, and the person being insulted must be sensitive about the insult's subject.
For example, if I would scream to Shaquille O'Neal during a game, "Hey, skinny, watch that you don't get knocked over by the ball," besides the fact that this is a lame insult, it is unlikely to be effective in getting on his nerves because O'Neal is clearly not a skinny person.
On the other hand, if I would shout "Hey, Shaq, getting a little spare tire around the middle?" it has a somewhat better chance of getting under his skin, because there is a decent chance that he cares a great deal about staying in shape and that he would be sensitive about any comments that may play upon his deepest fears of losing his edge. However, not knowing Shaq in the least, it is entirely possible that he is supremely confident about his physique and such an insult would roll off him without a twinge of pain.
When you think about it, insults only hurt people who are not well-adjusted. A balanced person who knows his or her strengths and weaknesses would hear an insult and either disagree, in which case it doesn't matter, or agree that this is an issue that needs to be raised. Telling Kristie Alley that she is fat today would probably elicit a reaction more like "well, I used to be a lot worse, and talk to me in a few months." The successful Jenny Craig spokeswoman's public persona has been redefined by her successful struggle to lose weight so even if she hasn't reached her goal yet she knows quite well where she is at, and again an insult like that would not have the same effect that it could have on many women who are obsessed with their shape.
People who get insulted easily, though, are those who tend to have low self-esteem to begin with - they already have grave doubts about their own abilities, or skills, or belief systems, and insults hurt them because they bring pre-existing internal painful feelings to the surface and force them to face the truth.
Bullies are notable because they will take insults very seriously, and then they will tend to lash out back at the insulter, often using force. Their own egos are so fragile that they feel that they need to prove their superiority in at least one level, and often that is achieved by using raw, physical violence.
One of this site's themes is that groups of people tend to think in similar ways. When a group of people get insulted to the extent that they threaten violence, then it may be surmised that the entire group suffers from some sort of mass psychosis.
In the past month alone, I can count at least five "insults to Islam" that made the news:
- A quite unfunny Opus cartoon was pulled from some American newspapers because it had the potential of being an "insult to Islam."
- A Malay man made a YouTube video which, among other things, said that a Muslim call to prayer near his house at 5 AM was singing out of tune and sounded like a rooster. This elicited protests.
- Soccer balls decorated with flags of many nations were distributed to Afghans, and many Muslims were insulted because the Saudi flag depicted on the ball includes Allah's name.
- A Swedish cartoon depicting Mohammed with a dog's body was strongly protested by Muslims worldwide as a huge insult to Islam.
- A female Bangladeshi author was assaulted by Muslims for her writings, after a fatwa was issued for her death, and even the Muslims who were against her being threatened felt that she should be deported for her blasphemous works. Here's a video of the attack:
One difference is in the reaction to these insults. A violent reaction to an insult is a sign of mental instability, and a mass violent reaction is evidence of a pervasive mental health crisis within that group.
To give a simple example: One of the favorite targets of Islam-bashers is Mohammed's relationship with his child bride, Aisha. Now, I have no doubt that referring to Mohammed as a "child molester" is a very deep insult to most Muslims. A mature reaction could be to calmly explain that it is unfair to subject seventh-century figures to 21st century morals, especially since popular concepts of morality can change every decade. (Or to ignore the provocation.) While that explanation may not assuage the insulters, if the person insulted truly believes that he is right, he is unlikely to react violently.
But those Muslims who, deep down, think it is a little bit sketchy for their prophet to be marrying a child are more likely to turn the insult around into a violent reaction.
The other difference between the Muslim reaction to insults and those of most others is hypersensitivity. Muslimshave created an atmosphere where they are insulted at even the slightest provocation, as in the Malay or Opus cases, or in the case of the Afghan soccer balls, being deeply aggrieved at what was clearly an innocent mistake. Such hypersensitivity to the most minute perceptions of the whiff of blasphemy must mean that the supposed insultees' own belief systems are so tenuous to begin with that literally anything can set them off. This is not a sign of piety; it is a sign of serious insecurity.
(For completeness sake, I should mention that there is a third kind of insult that is much harder to brush off, and that is an insult to one's loved ones. The natural anger that results from this kind of insult is partly due to the fact that the subjects cannot defend themselves. But if the mighty Islamic god or prophet is considered too fragile to be able to handle insults on their own, this shows even more strongly that the Muslims who rush to defend them are not very secure in their own belief in their power.)