What can the American Muslim community do to protect Molly Norris?

Sheila Musaji

Posted Sep 20, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

What can the American Muslim community do to protect Molly Norris?

by Sheila Musaji

Ms. Norris originally posted a cartoon in April and declared May 20, 2010 “Draw Mohammed Day”.  She did this in response to Comedy Central’s decision to black out a South Park Cartoon depicting Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit, and she dedicated the day to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who were threatened for attempting to show Mohammed in that censored episode.  You can still see the original cartoon Ms. Norris posted HERE.

In only a few days this had gone viral, and it seems that Ms. Norris was surprised at the emotional response that this had provoked from all sides.

Ms. Norris apologized to Muslims she had offended and asked that the Draw Mohammed Day be called off.

“The blowback was quick and furious. Norris was bombarded with angry messages; eventually, she posted a disclaimer on her personal site. “I am horrified! My one-off cartoon that was specifically about Comedy Central’s behavior…. is not good for a long-term plan,” she wrote. “The results have shown to be vitriolic and worse, offensive to Muslims who had nothing to do with the censorship issue I was inspired to draw about in the first place.”  Source  Her facebook page is no longer active

“When asked about her change of heart, Norris told The Ticket that she didn’t intend for the cartoon “to go viral.”    Then why did she send the cartoon to the media in the first place?  “Because I’m an idiot,” Norris replied.    “This particular cartoon of a ‘poster’ seems to have struck a gigantic nerve, something I was totally unprepared for,” she said.  She doesn’t appear to be alone.  The creator of a Facebook page dedicated to the day has bowed out as well.  Jon Wellington told the Washington Post (before abandoning ship) that he created the page because he “loved [Norris’s] creative approach to the whole thing—whimsical and nonjudgmental.”    While he was still associated with his own event he said: “To me, this is all about freedom of expression and tolerance of other viewpoints, so I hope you’ll help make this a sandbox that anyone can play in, if they want. I don’t think it’d be right under the circumstances for me (or anyone) to censor inflammatory posts *ahem*, but let’s be welcoming and inclusive, mmkay?”    Apparently the posts weren’t “welcoming” enough, as on Sunday morning he announced his departure from the cause. “I am aghast that so many people are posting deeply offensive pictures of the Prophet,” he writes. “Y’all go ahead if that’s your bag, but count me out.”  Source

Ms. Norris also said in a video posted on her website:  “Let’s call off ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ by changing it to ‘Everybody Draw Al Gore Day’ instead.  Enough Mohammed drawings have already been made to get the point across.  At this juncture, such drawings are only hurtful to more liberal and moderate Muslims who have not done anything to endanger our first amendment rights.”  Source

G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim writer and cartoonist, wrote an article Hijacked art, sidetracked peace in July (which was published in the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith, and on altmuslim)  in which she said:

Since I’m one of the only practicing Muslims in the American comics industry, people assumed I had some kind of profound insight into the reasons these cartoon incidents keep flaring up. But the only explanation I have is too simple to satisfy anyone: they happen because hate sells. It sells in the West, where anti-Muslim hate groups feed on incidents of Muslim rage; it sells in the Muslim world, where extremists are only too happy to use examples of Western intolerance to win over new recruits. This is the reality we live in: any satirized depiction of the Prophet Muhammad feeds into a global propaganda war, whether the artist intends it or not. There is no longer any such thing as artistic immunity in the battle of images, and to think otherwise is fatally naive.

Molly Norris thought otherwise. But as soon as she realized what she’d gotten herself into, it was too late: by taking the offending images off her website and issuing a bewildered apology, she enraged the Islamophobes who were ready to hail her as a martyr to their cause. In the opposing camp, Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar Al Awlaki was unwilling to give up such a plum opportunity to rally support for his jihad. A tepid explanation was not what either party wanted. Extremists of all stripes need blood and conflict in order to survive. Molly Norris has no true supporters: in order to be of any use to either the Islamophobes or the jihadis, she must be a blasphemer whose life is in jeopardy. As a peacemaker she loses her utility.

This is the central tragedy of these endless cartoon scandals. No one is looking for a resolution. Drawing insulting depictions of the Prophet Muhammad has become a favorite pastime of hipster racists, whose bulbous-nosed bushy-bearded ‘satire’ resembles the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Third Reich. Thanks in no small part to the vigorous, often violent outcry from hardliners in the Muslim world, these artists are elevated to a kind of freedom-of-speech sainthood whether their work has any real merit or not. Death threats are issued, lives pointlessly imperiled, careers of pundits - never themselves in any danger - made overnight. Noted American Muslim leader Imam Zaid Shakir put it best: this isn’t the clash of civilizations. It’s the clash of the uncivilized.

Molly Norris never drew a picture of the Prophet Muhammad as a wild-eyed Semitic bogeyman. She drew a cartoon teacup, the sort of thing you might find in a children’s picture book. Her intent was to inject a little innocent humor into an increasingly absurd conflict. What she didn’t realize is that there is no room left for innocence or humor in what has become a cynical exercise in mutual provocation. In honor of Draw Muhammad Day, her legion of unasked-for followers posted cartoons that were more and more grotesque and hate-filled. The result was a threat against Norris’s life from an al Qaeda spokesman - and fellow American - who does a better job of caricaturing himself than a cartoonist ever could. She disavowed her own comparatively innocuous cartoons, took down her website, and went into hiding. But the battle begun in her name rages on.

What Norris failed to understand is that by creating events like “Draw Muhammad Day”, artists hurl rhetorical stones that go straight through their enemies and hit Muslims like me. Al Qaeda isn’t hurt by Draw Muhammad Day. Its entire PR campaign is built on incidents like these. Without the Molly Norrises and Jyllands Postens of the world, Al Qaeda would have to get a lot more creative with its recruitment strategies. Artists who caricature the Prophet inevitably claim, as Norris has done, that they never meant to hurt ordinary Muslims, but ordinary Muslims are the only ones who are hurt. As a Muslim in the comics industry I spend more time than is good for my mental health defending the art and the religion I love from each other. Events like the fallout from Draw Muhammad Day make me think I’m wasting my time - the hate runs too deep on both sides. My conscience won’t let me support the criminalizing of art, but neither will it let me support a parade of cartoons depicting lurid, racist stereotypes of Arab men and passing them off as satire of a holy figure.

Molly Norris claims she never meant for this event to become a hate-fest. As silly as that sounds - anyone who’s spent more than half an hour on the internet could have told her how this would turn out - I believe her. If provocation was her objective, she could be basking in the light of notoriety as we speak. Instead she’s being vilified not only by extremists like Al Awlaki, but by her own former supporters. She’s learned the hard way that this conflict was never about her art or her ideas. As her fans turn their backs, looking for someone with a better stomach for scandal, it’s clear that no one was ever really interested in what she had to say.

Arsalan Iftikhar wrote What Would Muhammad Do? in which he said in part

...  We should all be reminded of a well-known Islamic parable which tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed and his daily interactions with an uruly female neighbor who used to curse him violently and then proceed to dump garbage onto him every day from her perchtop window each time he would ever walk by her house.

One day, the Prophet noticed that the woman was not present to throw garbage outside of her window. In true prophetic kindness, he actually went out of his way to inquire about her well-being and then proceeded to visit this unfriendly neighbor at her bedside inside of her own home when he had found out that she had fallen sick.

This genteel act of prophetic kindness toward unfriendly (and overtly hostile) neighbors is the Muslim ‘Ubuntu’ standard that we should all use within our collective lives; not threats of violence aimed at the silliness of some sophmoric cartoons aimed at inciting a provocative response around the world.

As people get in a huffy over a bunch of stupid cartoons, every Muslim around the world should take a very deep breath and simlpy ask themselves one basic question:

“What Would Muhammad Do?”

When it comes to a bunch of silly and sophmoric cartoons, the answer would be two very simple words: Absolutely nothing.

And then, for some reason, this month, the infamous Anwar Al-Awlaki issued a fatwa calling for the death of Ms. Norris and eight other people.  Al-Awlaki, whom Aziz Poonawalla has rightfully referred to as the Imam of the Sith, and who has been condemned by the American Muslim community leadership in the past for equally reprehensible fatwas and statements. 

And now, the Seattle paper that ran Molly Norris’ cartoons has published a statement which said in part   “... The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, “going ghost”: moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity. She will no longer be publishing cartoons in our paper or in City Arts magazine, where she has been a regular contributor. She is, in effect, being put into a witness-protection program…”

When the South Park incident that prefaced this current controversy happened, I wrote an article South Park cartoon and the Muslim Lunatic Fringe in which there are many statements by American Muslims denouncing any sort of violent response.  American Muslims have referred to those who threatened the South Park creators as a cancer in the Muslim community, as cowards, and as traitors to America, and to the Muslim community. 

During the Danish cartoon incident, some years ago, I wrote an article discussing the background of the controversy, and discussing the reasonable and unreasonable reactions to that controversy.  At that time I said

“The issue is being hijacked both by Islamophobes and by some Muslims.  There is no point in appealing to the Islamophobes, but Muslims must attempt to reach those vulnerable to overreacting to provocation and making them see that not only is violence not the appropriate Islamic response, but it will only make things worse for everyone.  If, as Muslims, we want to show respect for the Prophet, for the Qur’an, and for Islam, then we need to set a noble example of justice, tolerance, and respect.  If we want respect from others we need to show them equal respect.  ...  “

It seems that Ms. Norris meant to make a statement about freedom of speech.  She was totally taken aback by the extreme reactions both from Muslims and from Islamophobes.  When she saw the truly hateful cartoons being posted by some Islamophobes, and both the violent response of some ignorant Muslims, and the pained response from so many ordinary and peaceful Muslims who were hurt by these depictions she changed her mind about the appropriateness of her particular approach to defending freedom of speech.

How she could have been unaware that such a proposal could bring out the extremist element on both sides who would use the event to pursue their own agendas (having nothing to do with free speech) is difficult to understand.

Anyone in the American Muslim community which is perenially caught between the extremists on both sides could have told her that she was being naive.  Ramzy Baroud has stated our dilemma well: “But what is effectively lacking in the Arab and Muslim debate is the most fundamental issue of all: how can they respond as a collective to growing anti-Muslim sentiment, touted through the media and further inflamed through belligerent right-wing political forces in the West, and, dare I say, belligerent and self-defeating Arab and Muslim voices whose obnoxious and inconsistent response is playing well into the hands of their adversaries?”

Arsalan Bukhari of CAIR-Seattle said “She drew cute pictures of tea cups and spools of thread, asking, ‘Am I Mohammed?’  The idea of the ‘Draw Mohammed Day’ was insensitive, and she apologized for that. But she wasn’t the founder of any anti-Muslim movement.”  The Seattle Times reports further on Bukhari’s statements about this incident

“The two went to dinner after Norris apologized, and they became friends.

Bukhari says the real threat isn’t in Yemen. It’s that someone here will be incited by the terrorist in Yemen. The way to combat infectious radicalism, especially when it’s based on a false premise, is to be strong, publicly, against it. While not marginalizing an entire faith.

“It’s essential that we stand by her side, as a community, Muslims along with everyone else,” Bukhari said. “We should stand up to people who make these kinds of threats, not look the other way.”

I absolutely agree with Arsalan Bukhari. 

I am saddened and ashamed that Ms. Norris has been threatened by someone claiming an Islamic justification for such a threat of violence.  If it was in my power to personally protect Ms. Norris, I would do so.  If it was in my power to find and arrest Al-Awlaki, or any other person instigating or attempting to carry out violence against another, I would do so.  I wish that I knew what more I could do other than condemn such words and actions.

I condemn Anwar Al-Awlaki as a cowardly man attempting to incite others to murder a young woman for nothing more than naivete, even after she apologized.  I condemn such cowardly behavior as a human being.  Al-Awlaki, and any who follow his perverted understanding of Islam bring shame on themselves, and they bring shame on the entire Muslim community.

I condemn Anwar Al-Awlaki’s “fatwa”.  I condemn any suggestion that Islam sanctions such a reaction.  And, I condemn this threat of violence as a Muslim, based on my understanding of the Qur’an, and the following verses:

“We made you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.”  [2:143]

Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and in the race for a garden wide as the heavens and the earth, prepared for the righteous- (the righteous are) those who spend whether in prosperity or adversity, who restrain anger and who pardon all people. For God loves those who do good. [3:133 –134]

“You shall most certainly be tried in your possessions and in your persons; and indeed you shall hear many hurtful things from those to whom revelation was granted before your time, as well as from those who have come to ascribe divinity to other beings beside God. But if you remain patient in adversity and conscious of Him - this, behold, is something to set one’s heart upon.” [3:186]

“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly For justice, as witnesses To Allah, even as against Yourselves, or your parents, Or your kin, and whether It be (against) rich or poor: For Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (Of your hearts), lest ye Swerve, and if ye Distort (justice) or decline To do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted With all that ye do.”  [4:135]

“...Help ye one another In righteousness and piety, But help ye not one another In sin and rancour: Fear Allah: for Allah Is strict in punishment.”  [5:2] 

“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly For Allah, as witnesses To fair dealing, and let not The hatred of others To you make you swerve To wrong and depart from Justice. Be just: that is Next to Piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted With all that ye do.”  [5:8]

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. [5:32]

“When you see those who engage in discourse about Our signs, the Qur’ân, in mockery, turn away from them, and do not sit with them, until they discourse on some other topic…”[6:68]

“Indulge [people] with forgiveness, [accepting] what issues spontaneously from people’s manners [of behavior], and do not scrutinize them, and enjoin kindness, decency, and turn away from the ignorant, and do not counter their stupidity with the like.” [7:199]

Invite all to the way of your God with wisdom and beautiful preaching. And argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For your God knows best who have strayed from his path and who receive guidance. And if you do respond to an attack, respond no worse than they did. But if you show patience, that is indeed the best course. Be patient- for your patience is from God . . . Indeed, God is with those who restrain themselves and those who do good. [16:125-128]

“And verily messengers before you were mocked but in the end, the mockers were overwhelmed by the very thing they ridiculed.” [21:41.]

“… They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [24:22]

The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!“  [25:63]

[Believers are] those who do not bear false witness and who, when they pass by worthless talk, pass by with dignity. [25:72]

And when they hear vain talk, they turn away from it and say: “To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be to you: we do not seek out the ignorant.”  [28:55]

The Cartoonists Rights International Network has a petition online HERE  I just signed the petition, and hope that many others will also.

SEE ALSO:  [Note:  Many of these articles were published over the previous cartoon controversy and other incidents, but are equally relevant to this current incident.]

A Call to Conscience and a Reminder to the Muslims, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_call_to_conscience_and_a_reminder_to_the_muslims/

An Idiot’s Guide to Offensive Cartoons, Qadeeb al-Ban Harris http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/an_idiots_guide_to_offensive_cartoons/

An Open Letter from a Muslim to Muslims:  “Pray And Forgive.”, T.O.Shanavas http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/an_open_letter_from_a_muslim_to_muslims_pray_and_forgive/ 
The Best Defense, Ahson Azmat http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_best_defense/

a Boing Boing youtube video interview with the South Park creators about this episode http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp9bYLa5gaA&feature=player_embedded

Anti Muslim Rhetoric Reaching a Dangerous Level, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/anti_muslim_rhetoric_reaching_a_dangerous_level/ 

Cartoon Awakening: Toward A Positive Media Strategy, Ramzy Baroud http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/cartoon_awakening_toward_a_positive_media_strategy/ 

Cartoon Wars: The Challenge for Muslims in the West, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/cartoon_wars_the_challenge_for_muslims_in_the_west/

Cartoons and Bombs, John Chuckman http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/cartoons_and_bombs/

Crazy over Cartoons, Hasan Zillur Rahim http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/crazy_over_cartoons/

Danish Cartoons: Enough Is Enough, Zafarul-Islam Khan http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/danish_cartoons_enough_is_enough/

Danish Cartoons: Free Press or Hate Speech?, Louay Safi http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/danish_cartoons_free_press_or_hate_speech/

The Danish Cartoons: Emotional Torture, Untamed Violence and Intellectual Terrorism, Dr. Aslam Abdullah http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_danish_cartoons_emotional_torture_untamed_violence_and_intellectual_ter/

Danish Cartoons: From many Muslims, cartoonish excess, Mona Eltahawy http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/from_many_muslims_cartoonish_excess/
Do Muslim Outcries Against Defamation Serve God?, Anisa Abd el Fattah http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/do_muslim_outcries_against_defamation_serve_god

Free Speech and Civic Responsibility Tariq Ramadan http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/free_speech_and_civic_responsibility/

Freedoms of Expression and Belief, Istiaq Ahmed http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/freedoms_of_expression_and_belief/

Hate rhetoric is escalating into violence, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/hate_rhetoric_is_escalating_into_violence/

Ibn Taymiyyah and His Fatwa on Terrorism, Asghar Ali Engineer http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/ibn_taymiyyah_and_his_fatwa_on_terrorism/0018034

Imam Feisal and former Archbishop Lord Carey Call for Calm after Offensive Danish Cartoons, ASMA Society http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/imam_feisal_and_former_archbishop_lord_carey_call_for_calm_after_offensive/

Muslims Deserve the Same Respect as Christians or Jews, Edgar M. Bronfman http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslims_deserve_the_same_respect_as_christians_or_jews/

Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism - Part I - Fatwas (TAM article collection) http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_part_i_fatwas/
Muslim Voices Against Extremism & Terrorism - Part II - Statements by Organizations (TAM article collection)  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_terrorism_part_ii_statements_by_organizatio/
Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism - Part III - Statements & Articles by Individuals   (TAM article collection) http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_part_iii_statements_articles/
Muslim Voices Promoting Islamic Non Violent Solutions (TAM article collection)  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/promoting_islamic_non_violent_solutions/

North American Muslims Determined to Counter Extremism, Violence, and Terrorism, Sheila Musaji http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/north_american_muslims_determined_to_counter_violence_and_terrorism/0017836

The Not So Funny Cartoon Capers, Abdul Cader Asmal http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_not_so_funny_cartoon_capers/

Open Society in a Closed Circle, Shakeel Syed http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/open_society_in_a_closed_circle/ 

“Opus” Cartoon Not Offensive to This Muslim, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/opus_cartoon_not_offensive_to_this_muslim/

Press Misses Point in Cartoon Controversy, Dr. James Zogby http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/press_misses_point_in_cartoon_controversy/

The Rage Game, Putting On The brakes, Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_rage_game_putting_on_the_brakes/

The Right to Slander God?, Ann Kathrin Gässlein http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_right_to_slander_god/

Self-Censorship, Dr. Robert D. Crane http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_silent_treatment/ 

South Park celebrates 200th episode with another attempt to show us… Mohammed!  (including link to video with clips from the South Park episode) http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/douglasmurray/100035408/south-park-celebrates-200th-episode-with-another-attempt-to-show-us-mohammed/

The special pair of spectacles, Shahzad Aziz http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_special_pair_of_spectacles/

Sticks and Stones May Provoke Others to Break My Bones, James Zogby http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/sticks_and_stones_may_provoke_others_to_break_my_bones/

Thank God Someone Is Listening to Us - Terrorism Is Not Jihad, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/thank_god_someone_is_listening_to_us_terrorism_is_not_jihad/

Those Danish Muhammad Cartoons, Gary Leupp http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/those_danish_muhammad_cartoons/

Through the Looking Glass:  The Danish Cartoons, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/through_the_looking_glass_the_danish_cartoons_dumb_and_dumber/

Time to Install Circuit-Breakers in the System, Farish A. Noor http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/time_to_install_circuit_breakers_in_the_system/

‘War on Terror’ Rhetoric Sounds Like War on Islam, Parvez Ahmed http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/war_on_terror_rhetoric_sounds_like_war_on_islam/

What is the Cartoon controversy?, Chandra Muzaffar http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/what_is_the_cartoon_controversy/

What Would Muhammad Do (WWMD), Dr. Hesham Hassaballa http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/what_would_muhammad_do_wwmd/

Where Art Meets Ignorance, Ibrahim Mansour http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/where_art_meets_ignorance/
Wikipedia has an extensive collection of articles on this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draw_Mohammed_Day