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. This article was previously published in the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith.