Freedom and intimidation

The last time Molly Norris was in the news was July. She’s the Seattle cartoonist who responded to censorship of South Park by declaring April 20 to be “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote an episode making fun of the fact that you can’t portray Mohammed on television anymore. The episode was scrubbed by Comedy Central — even though Mohammed wasn’t depicted. His non-appearance appearances were erased and verbal references were bleeped. All previous episodes featuring Mohammed were removed from the internet. Oh, and an American man, since arrested on terror-related charges, suggested that Parker and Stone might end up brutally murdered the way Dutch politician Theo Van Gogh was.

So Norris shows some solidarity with these victimized cartoonists. Outrage ensued — protests, riots, you name it. She quickly backtracked and explained she didn’t mean to offend. Too late, Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki declared, putting her on an execution hitlist. From July in the New York Daily News:

The Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – the radical who’s also been cited as inspiring the Fort Hood, Tex., massacre and the plot by two New Jersey men to kill U.S. soldiers – singled out artist Molly Norris as a “prime target,” saying her “proper abode is Hellfire.”

It occurs to me that the New York Daily News uses the same word to describe terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki and First Amendment protesters. I demand better descriptors!

So how does someone respond to a death threat from al-Awlaki? The Seattle Weekly, where she used to be published, has the latest. And it’s not good:

You may have noticed that Molly Norris’ comic is not in the paper this week. That’s because there is no more Molly.

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–except, as she notes, without the government picking up the tab. It’s all because of the appalling fatwa issued against her this summer, following her infamous “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” cartoon.

The articles goes on to say the woman formerly known as Norris views it like having cancer — “it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.”

From the beginning, I’ve found it easy to place myself in Norris’ shoes. She’s a young female journalist from the Western part of the United States. And yet I can’t imagine what she must be going through. Her entire life has been upended. She’s lost her name, her livelihood, her freedom. This is a horrifying story, and one that demonstrates the importance of fighting for certain values. How can society help this woman and others like her who stand up for freedom of speech and of the press? Of the right to criticize any religion one wants to?

And how much more do we need to understand about this conflict, and how to resolve it or otherwise handle it? We need much more and much better reporting to explain this thuggery and what role religion plays in that thuggery — not just with folks like al-Awlaki but everyone else, too. What about non-violent Muslims, how does their religion inform their response to stories like this? And what about Christians, Jews, the unaffiliated and others for whom such stories are more foreign? Religion plays a role here, too — a complex, historical one that needs not be hidden.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    “How can society help this woman and others like her who stand up for freedom of speech and of the press?”

    A start:

    1. Ammend the immigration act to prohibit people comming to the U.S. from majority Muslim countries.
    2. Expel nationals of majority Muslim countries.
    3. To deal with the special problem of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries who might want to come to the U.S. we can prohibit people in non-muslim countries who have one or more parents, grandparents, or great grandparents froma Mulsim country from coming to the U.S.

  • Dave

    How can society help this woman and others like her who stand up for freedom of speech and of the press? Of the right to criticize any religion one wants to?

    I’m fresh out of original ideas but I can come up with one developed by others. After the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, publishers collaborated to publish “The Satanic Verses” in the United States without threat to themselves or Rushdie. Similar steps could be taken to allow Molly Norris to go on drawing cartoons, possible on the Internet, so she doesn’t lose her livelihood as well as her identity.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    This story seems to point out the cowardice of the news media about reporting head on and in depth on the more violent and thuggish strains of Islam represented by Anwar al-Awlaki. The upside-down editorial choices apparent in the super-hyped coverage of a Christian pastor who wants to burn Korans, vs. the essentially buried story of a cartoonist-journalist being hounded into hiding, just make no sense to me. I would think journalists would be sympathetic towards Norris and would want to tell her story and use it to understand the more radical strains of Islam. But I don’t find evidence that the story has been widely told or carried at all by the major news outlets, with the exception of Fox News.

    News organizations can be intimidated, and for lack of a better explanation I think this self-censorship reflects a worry among journalists that certain Islamic stories are radioactive and best avoided.

  • Roberto

    1. Ammend the immigration act to prohibit people comming to the U.S. from majority Muslim countries.
    2. Expel nationals of majority Muslim countries.
    3. To deal with the special problem of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries who might want to come to the U.S. we can prohibit people in non-muslim countries who have one or more parents, grandparents, or great grandparents froma Mulsim country from coming to the U.S.

    Egyptian Copts, Lebanese and Syrian Catholics and Orthodox, Iraqi Assyrians, Malaysian, Indonesian, Pakistani and a whole host of other Christians say “thank you for your serious attention to the question.”

  • dalea

    This story should be at least as big as the Mosque at Ground Zero hysteria, only dealing with a real issue. I would like to see coverage of how moderate Muslims are dealing with the issue. And how they intend to help Molly Norris. As well as commentary from other religious leaders.

  • Jerry

    How can society help this woman and others like her who stand up for freedom of speech and of the press? Of the right to criticize any religion one wants to?

    Terrorists win when we allow fear to override courage. Terrorists win when we act like them and adopt discriminatory policies rather than remember the words of the Declaration of Independence that ALL are created equal with equal rights. Terrorists win when we renounce truth in favor of lies intended to win political power. Terrorists win when we forget that they are a tiny minority. Terrorists win if we don’t uphold our laws and constitutional freedoms no matter what temporary apparent benefit might be gained by renouncing them.

    And, most important, terrorists win when we turn to hate rather than remembering that God commanded us to love our enemies.

    So the answer to your question is that we need to stick to our ideals with the courage exhibited by a soldier going into battle. We need to make it clear to the world by word and deed that we will not give way to fear and hatred but will defend our ideals to the death if need be. And, of course, we need to do all the practical things such as intelligence activities and having a strong, terrorist-oriented military.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Roberto, you think I wasn’t being seious but I was. I doubt we can say, legally, that Christians can come but Muslims can’t. I’m sure a court would strike down a law like that. There is also this to consider: The Christians in Muslim majority countries have a job to do. They are closest to the culture and should have the best success in evangelizing their neigbors.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    One thing I’d like to understand is, what exactly does the Koran state about creating images of Mohammed? Or is this even from the Koran? Is it perhaps a tradition or something? I realize Islam can be different depending on who you ask, but I want to know where this rule/law came from.

    Is this akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain in Judaism/Christianity? Or creating graven images? Is the prescribed punishment for breaking this law supposed to be death?

    Is Mohammed allowed to be depicted in text, like if one were to use him as a character in a story? Or is this a purely visual art kind of thing?

    Finally, I’d like to hear the opinion of a Muslim scholar on why the depiction of the prophet is considered offensive/sacrilegious.

    On the flip side, it would also be nice to hear more about the motives of the people who choose to depict Mohammed even though they understand some Muslims find it offensive. Is it a critique of Islam? What do they hope to accomplish?

  • http://none Peter Atkins

    Well Mollie, it seems that we are becoming concerned with the freedom of speech being denied to any form of anti-Islam rhetoric. Implied assassination by fatwah is scaring the heavens out of us because a lone voice, or a news outlet can be singled out for execution.

    So how about we get Tea Party devotees to act in single accord, say in one week, to concoct anti-Islam and anti-Mohammed activity. That way, there would be 1 or 2 million fatwahs issued simultaneously which would require a war if it were to be carried out in full. It’s a great scenario and I am quite sure many would welcome it. But, oh dear, might it not bring on Armageddon? Yes, it might do, but it was a good idea when I first thought of it!

  • Jerry

    what exactly does the Koran state about creating images of Mohammed?

    I personally think the wikipedia article is good. It says that it’s not in the Quran but in some Hadith, traditions. And images are not forbidden to all Muslims so it’s one of those things where Muslim traditions disagree.

    The key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry, where the image becomes more important than what it represents. In Islamic art, some visual depictions only show Muhammad with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame; other images, notably from Persia of the Ilkhanate, and those made under the Ottomans, show him fully.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depictions_of_Muhammad

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    dalea,

    I agree — I think in a sane world this would be a much bigger story.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    In some Christian traditions (such as my own – confessional Presbyterian/ Reformed) the use of images of God (including Christ) is forbidden. (2nd Commandment violation). But there is no earthly punishment for this; in the Old Testament, punishment for this would have been under the broader category of blasphemy and false worship, which is the more general concern of the 2nd Commandment.

    This has been widely ignored, of course, not just in the modern church, but in the Roman Catholic tradition who view (and number!) the commandments differently and have allowed images of Christ since at least 1200 AD (eg. stained glass windows in cathedrals).

    If one views Islam as a Christian heresy (!) then in this light such banning of images of Mohammed, a mere man and not God, is legalism in the super- extreme.

  • Maureen

    Re: images of Christ

    This is a very big issue in Christology and in the history of art and Western civ, so let’s be clear about this:

    Christian images of Christ were made very very early — much earlier than stained glass! Christian frescos of Bible stories include images of Christ from the very beginning. You get lots of the Baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, Baby Jesus visited by the Magi, the adult Jesus as the Good Shepherd (borrowing from Apollo imagery), Jesus as a philosopher and teacher (borrowing from pictures of the Greek philosophers), and Jesus as God (most prominently, the one depicting him as “the bridegroom” “like a giant” that looks like Helios). There are also many, many seal rings with itsy bitsy pictures of Jesus in various Bible situations, and some very early textiles (which corroborates complaints by a bishop who didn’t like them).

    In the East, many early images of Christ were destroyed by the Iconoclasm movement, which was state supported by a couple of emperors and which produced a great many martyrs who refused to destroy all religious paintings and sculptures. The Iconoclasts seem to have been a Christian attempt to take on Muslim “virtue” in this respect; the West didn’t get into it at all, much to the iconoclast emperors’ annoyance. But that version of Iconoclasm finally died out under the pressure of time, the people, and theological argumentation by folks like St. John of Damascus (Damascene); and icons became even more popular than before.

    Basically, the argument is that man is made in the image of God, so we’re already images. And then Jesus is running around on earth, God incarnate, a normal person that you could make pictures of. So obviously, it’s okay to make pictures of the saints and all the persons of the Trinity. (With other supporting arguments and Biblical examples, and talk about Biblical written words being the image of God’s Word.)

  • Maureen

    Oh, and of course the Brazen Serpent was an image of Jesus on the Cross, albeit very symbolically. So that ship sailed in Moses’ time, from the non-Iconoclast point of view.

    And of course, that Reformation opposition to images didn’t stem from trying to be hip like Muslims! :) Sorry for all the of coursing.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Maureen,

    To add one more “of course,” the Reformation’s attitude toward Biblical images was, of course, more complex than mere “opposition.” :)

  • Jeffrey

    If this story is true, it represents a real challenge for editors and journalists but that isn’t really a “free speech” or “free press” issue since there is no government intervenor. In terms of chilling coverage, there’s no doubt that it is true but chilled press and speech is not the same as First Amendment concerns.

    I also think it’s important to keep this in a little context. Religious extremists in the U.S. are far more likely to terrorize and kill you for working in an abortion clinic than they are for posting a cartoon of Mohammed or even burning a Koran. And even that doesn’t happen that often. Abortion clinic employees have lived under FBI protection and have been forced to go undercover for two decades because of the threat of religious extremism, yet most people are rather uninterested in that threat.

    Maybe it comes from the sense we just don’t know what to do about it. We aren’t going to bar Muslims from living in the U.S. or immigrating no more than we are ready to jail all abortion protestors. So that leaves us with a cold war with hopes of a detente.

  • jojomonkey

    hilarious.

  • MJBubba

    Jerry (#6):
    “And, most important, terrorists win when we turn to hate rather than remembering that God commanded us to love our enemies.”
    Thank you for that. God did indeed tell us to love our enemies. You are on the right track.


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