The Artist Formerly Known as Molly Norris

September 22, 2010

I have a new blog up over at the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, The Faith Divide. This is my third piece for the them — the other two can be found here and here. The piece addresses Molly Norris and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which I have written about several times. [Update: This piece has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.]

Below is an excerpt; it can be read in full at The Faith Divide:

Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.

How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.

However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.” Continue reading at the Faith Divide.

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2 Responses to “The Artist Formerly Known as Molly Norris”

  1. Hitch said

    I have been defending Molly Norris the very moment the whole thing came out. The very reason why I found it so troubling to see all this radicalizing language (collective punishment, swastika, bigotry, hatred) was exactly because it feeds into this culture of fear and oppression.

    We have not worked to dissociate expression from violent retribution, rather we have learned that offense is to be taken as the measure of the boundaries of free expression.

    What an awful lesson to teach and learn.

    It is the failure to teach the right lessons why people have to go into hiding.

    So we heard all this talk about collective punishment and swastikas and back when noone said a hoot how (a) that this never was the intent to begin with and (b) that this talk endangers people.

    But that cannot be said. People say these things in the name of tolerance. In the name of protecting the persecuted and so fourth.

    All the while I was flagging death threats to Molly Norris on YouTube for what they were, while at the same time fending off charges of bigotry launched against smiling stick figures.

    Now that Molly Norris actually is in hiding, suddenly people come out of their wood-work and show sympathy, yet not without taking some side-swipes and distributing blame.

    And also not without drawing some more unsavory comparisons that are plain rejectable.

    Drawing a cartoon is not the same as burning Qur’ans. Both is to be seen it it’s context to understand the comparison.

    But false comparisons is par for the game. Perfectly fine secular students are virtual nazis. Those parallels are apparently OK to draw.

    If that actually contributes to escalating the discourse, well apparently we are not to worry about that. Now, four months and one witness protection identity erasure later we actually tnink about “cooperation and kindness”.

    And comparing an out and out bigot who has nothing but a destructive message (Terry Jones) to an actual legitimate question of how one artistically engage with religions, and if religious mandates apply to the non-believers (EDMD) is not valid. Context and content matters.

    But we live in a crazy world. Terry Jones gets a platforms and the
    microphones of the world press. And Alex Stewart may loose his job for trying to make a case about the man-made nature of the “holiness” of books.

    Yet one has too look long and hard for people who come to defense of those who articulate difficult positions, or take the time to understand the difference in context. People who try to really take a closer look at who the victims are in what situations.

    As for PZ. Well how are we to think? On the one hand we are told that depicting Muhammad is offensive to all Muslims and collectively punishes them (a mischaracterization on its own merits) but then one cannot come back and take issue with the whole group? While I agree with that nuance is important and I disagree with PZ’s wording (even though I understand what he meant, as opposed to what one can quote-mine him for), it seems to me that we only want that nuance for one side and not the other.

    What is worse is this idea that we can make extremism irrelevant by giving in to extremist demands. They don’t just hate us because we are critical of Islam. They hate us for many many reasons. Should we really allow genocide in East Timor in order not to be hated? Or should we allow the dismantling of girl schools in Agfanistan in order to not make enemies? Should we stay silent against stonings just to not infuriate hardliners? Should we not articulate the plight of gays in, say, Iran just to not rock the boat? Should we give up freedom of expression just to not offend sensibilities?

    To me that is an immoral proposition. It throws the real victims under the bus, the victims of the extremists, of violent culture, it makes them falsely responsible for not complying. So I cannot follow that. We should draw smiling stick figures all day, every day until it is again back to what it should be, a matter of expression without retribution. And if someone is threatened with or falls victim to retribution we have to stand by them and against those who perpetuate the violence.

    What is worse it is a very real problem for many people today. People are persecuted for their expression by violent elements. To ask them to stop is to ask dissent to stop. How is this helping Taslima Nasrin, or MF Hussein? How does this help us give a space for people who articulate difficult topics?

    As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

    As for the Qur’an passage… perhaps you should do research into what is considered sin.

    Or do you think it’s OK to withdraw support of gays, because they are sinners? How about withdrawing support for those who do not pray or collect interest?

    I know you meant it to inspire. But sadly it doesn’t. Which system is moral that withdraws support based on a particular faith’s notion of sin. It’s immoral. It is why out-groups get stigmatized.

    As for a comforting passage of the Qur’an, how about “there is no compulsion in the religion.” (2:256). Islam, the religion free of demands.

    Luckily there are indeed praise-worthy initiatives around:

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/cityofbrass/2010/09/statement-on-free-speech-by-mu.html

    I wish we had seen this in May, but I’m glad we see it now. For Molly Norris perhaps people now speaking up is too little too late. Her live is altered by a society that is more concerned with claiming victimhood than protecting real victims.

    As for demands that X stand up and speak against violent elements in their “group”. It’s not a moderate muslim’s responsibility to stand against threats, intimidation, and censoring of freedom of expression. It is the responsibility of all of us. Let’s not give the extremists what they want. Let’s give the rest of us, the wonderful open, pluralistic, tolerance, non-violent world, a world were we can hold different and difficult perspectives without being afraid. A world where we can express and expect that it is dissociated from violent retribution. And a world which rejects violence, fear, intimidation and demands to comply to it in the name of not giving it fodder.

    I know you mean well, Chris, and I hope you understand this criticism for what it is. My honest perspective on a difficult topic, and a topic to which we should not be silent.

  2. bp said

    nice job stepping out there, C-Sted. some of the comments on the W-Post are not pretty. i’m always worried when people bring religious texts into debates/discussion because so many people’s different life experiences invade their interpretation of the text. it opens the floor for, in my opinion, the worst kind one-up-manship, where each person acts/speaks as if they are the final voice in the matter (someone claims to have studied the original dead sea scrolls, but then someone chimes in saying they LIVED in the dead sea when it was found, etc.).

    it also seems to be very distracting. so many comments were about your use of the Koran, they seemed to have lost sight of your general points. i’m not saying you were wrong in doing so however: i think it was bold and necessary. i am, on the other hand, very interested in what role religious texts can play in inter/extra-religious discourse. another topic for another time.

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