A Muslim cartoonist on “Draw Muhammad Day”

by G. Willow Wilson When Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris was put on an Al Qaeda hit list for her “Draw … Continued

by G. Willow Wilson

When Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris was put on an Al Qaeda hit list for her “Draw Muhammad Day” project, my inbox started filling up.

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.

G. Willow Wilson is the author of The Butterfly Mosque, a memoir about her conversion to Islam and life in the Middle East; as well as the award-winning comic books AIR and CAIRO.

  • frontporchtalker

    “The measure of a person is not what he/she does when things are easy, but what she does when things are controversial (and when nobody is looking)”—Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (misquoted)If Dr. King is correct, which I believe he is, then the Cleric Al Alwaki terrorizes Molly Norris with death threats, in the name of Allah, when things are controversial (and everybody is looking). Molly Norris, on the other hand, has asked only for forgiveness and peace, not just out of fear, but because it is the right thing to do (even when nobody is looking), when things are controversial. Surely Allah will forgive her and the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), who preached peace, too.Everybody else, as far as I can tell, (including the woman from Facebook, Dan Savage, South Park, et al), when things are heated and controversial, are looking out for their own egos forgetting now that Molly Norris is taking on the burden of THEIR insistence on continuing the EBDMD campaign.Peace and Grace to Molly Norris, from all of us who love you.

  • frontporchtalker

    “The measure of a person is not what he/she does when things are easy, but what she does when things are controversial (and when nobody is looking)”—Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (misquoted)If Dr. King is correct, which I believe he is, then the Cleric Al Alwaki terrorizes Molly Norris with death threats, in the name of Allah, when things are controversial (and everybody is looking). Molly Norris, on the other hand, has asked only for forgiveness and peace, not just out of fear, but because it is the right thing to do (even when nobody is looking), when things are controversial. Everybody else, as far as I can tell, (including the woman from Facebook, Dan Savage, South Park, et al), when things are heated and controversial, are looking out for their own egos forgetting now that Molly Norris is taking on the burden of THEIR insistence on continuing the EBDMD campaign.

  • frontporchtalker

    oops! I meant to publish the second copy of my post….

  • nilskidoo

    These are valid points. However, this is a Democracy, and as such, I think living in fear of possible repercussions should never ever be an issue where regards Freedom Of Speech. The instigator should have been more self-aware of where things might lead, just as a conscientious human, certainly. But cracking a joke does not necessarily qualify one as an Islamophobe. Such a thing is not a matter of “allowable prejudice”, as this is the real world and as such, here in the real world jokes are often made to qualm tensions, not to invigorate them. The gentleman who threw out the death threat should be reprimanded for his inability to take a joke, just as much for his opportunism. He should have been more understanding of the enabled rights here in the USA, where in theory, any censorship is just morally and ethically wrong.

  • Sloper

    Where to start? WIllow is to my knowledge unusual for a cartoonist, in that she is capable of taking offense at cartoons and cartoonists. What happened to just going “Ugh” and moving on? I spent much of the 1980s living in a loft in NYC with five or six cartoonists. Hung out with a lot of others. And they are fun to hang out with, but their senses of humor tend to be gross and offensive in a variety of ways depending on the artist. Same for the stuff they draw on napkins at bars. A couple of my friends went on to work with Kricfalusi to create Ren & Stimpy, easily the funniest and most offensive animated series from 1990 (and the Simpsons went up then too); the way was opened for shows like Beavis and Butthead and South Park. Next thing you know, Jesus had a cable access show….When Jose Serrano displayed his piece, showing a crucified Jesus in a glass of urine, there was plenty of screaming in New York. Same for the guy who put elephant dung on a picture of Mary, showed at the Brooklyn Museum. Even Giuliani took the opportunity to denounce the work and threaten the museum. But no one tried to kill the artists. That’s just nuts. It’s just art, to use the term loosely.Aside from the fact that cartoonists, based on my own extensive observations, tend to have a 12-yr-old’s sense of propriety (i.e., little or none), thus making any notion that somehow cartoonists will stop drawing offensive cartoons at all, or even only of the founder of one particular religion, naïve or even silly; –aside from this, there seems to be only one major religion on this planet which has extremists so extreme that they want to kill cartoonists for their cartoons. Until they stop rioting over marks made on paper (or bristolboard, whatever), they will keep on looking ludicrous. It makes it much harder to care about their feelings.Ugly cartoons are being used to create a pretext which allows others to argue that this is about disrespect for Islam, or for religion as a generalized abstraction But the two guys who do South Park aren’t threatened with death by members of any of the other religions they have offended. I find them offensive and I am not religious. But:It’s a *cartoon*, for Pete’s sake. It just makes the people who make these threats and even carry them out look absolutely loony to a lot of the rest of us. And threatening silly cartoonists who should know better, but don’t, makes the idiots who make these threats look silly, too.

  • DAS2

    Al Awlaki IS TOTALLY IGNORANT! HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT GOD! IF HE DID, HE WOULD KNOW THAT HONOR KILLINGS ARE NOT NECESSARY AND FUTILE AND A WASTE OF HUMAN LIFE, BECAUSE ONE’S HONOR HAS ALREADY BEEN RESTORED THROUGH JESUS CHRIST!

  • DAS2

    EVERY SINGLE CARTOONIST IN THE WEST SHOULD DRAW MUHAMMAD AND POST THEIR VERSION ON THE SAME DAY TO THE INTERNET. FREE SPEECH WILL NOT BE SILENCED!MUHAMMAD WAS A FALSE PROPHET! HE WAS EVIL AND VIOLENT; HE WAS THE ANTI-CHRIST!JESUS WAS SINLESS AND TAUGHT US GOD’S LOVE FOR US ALL!

  • DAS2

    HOW CAN YOU DEFEND MUHAMMAD, WHO MUSLIMS OPENLY ADMIT WAS A PEDOPHILE THAT MARRIED A 7 YEAR OLD GIRL?HOW AN YOU DEFEND MUHAMMAD, WHOSE TEACHINGS ARE TO KILL SOMEONE FOR QUESTIONING HIS SINFUL NATURE?COMPARE MUHAMMAD THE PERVERT, TO JESUS CHRIST – THE SINLESS AND PEACEFUL REPRESENTATIVE FROM GOD.

  • mikeghouse

    This is one of the best articles I have read on the Cartoons, I have written several on the subject and have offered pluralistic solutions to the imbroglio, but Mr. Wilson has done it right. It is really not religion stupid, it is the evil need to hate some one, denigrate some and fakely feel secure and worthy in their lives. Mike Ghouse

  • dblakeross

    Worst self-promotion idea ever. Poor Molly.

  • T-Paine

    I hope we will not concede the sane position as easily. DMD brought about many things, not just was is presented here. We desperately need people who know multiple cultures and engage in moderating dialogue. But equating a campaign for free speech with some of the worst that human-kind has produced is not that. I’m glad to say that I have read Muslims come out and understand and defend DMD and also state that we should not give in to the claim that speaking openly will help the recruitment of extremists. Rather we should educate and seek the hearts and minds. We won’t be defening an open pluralistics society without being open, and we won’t be preserving freedom of expression if we concede it out of fear.Molly Norris is in the unfortunate position of being an unprotected individual subject to the reaction of violent ideologues. Why we talk about her more than about how to make a world safe and all of us I do not know.

  • terry1845

    I cannot do anything else but shake my head to the egregious bigoted responses by individuals who think they are following in Christ’s footsteps by denouncing another Prophet of God… If you remember your biblical stories Mary the mother of Jesus was accused of PROSTITUTION WHEN it was learned she was pregnant before marring Joseph!!! So, therefore you have scandals on both sides

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