On Supporting, and Not Supporting, Molly Norris

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By Thea Lim

I heard about Molly Norris for the first time last week, on Fatemeh’s blog. Fatemeh wrote that she had signed a petition in support of Molly Norris, and gave this reason:

I was unhappy to read that “Draw Muhammad Day” creator Molly Norris had voluntarily gone into hiding. While I thought the concept of “Draw Muhammad Day” was ridiculous and viewed it in the same light as the South Park episode that supposedly depicted the prophet, I recognize that Norris’ intent wasn’t to be offensive or malicious. In Islam, intentions count for something just like actions, and no one should be punished for simple naïveté. It’s atrocious that Norris has received threats and feels unsafe enough to go incognito.

I have to say that after doing a little bit of reading about Norris, “Draw Muhammad Day” and the outpouring of support for Norris, I am finding it difficult to be as generous as Fatemeh.

When Fatemeh writes that she supports Norris, what I understand is that Fatemeh supports Norris’ right to live a life free of violence and threats.  That, I find entirely reasonable – I too support Norris’ right to safety, as I support anyone’s right to safety.  But what I am struggling to understand is exactly what all the other people who say they support Norris, are actually in support of.

Aaron Goldstein at The American Spectator writes:

Freedom of expression in America took another step closer to a slow death last week when the Seattle Weekly announced it would no longer be publishing the work of cartoonist Molly Norris because she had gone into hiding…I cannot help but wonder that if Norris had been more assertive in her own defense then others would have been more eager to stand beside her…So given the current political climate regarding Islam in America who among us could be the next Molly Norris?

James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal writes:

Where is President Obama? Last month, speaking to a mostly Muslim audience at the White House, the president strongly defended the right of another imam held up as a moderate to build a mosque adjacent to Ground Zero. The next day, and again at a press conference last week, Obama said he was merely standing up for the First Amendment. As far as we recall, it’s the only time Barack Obama has ever stood up for anybody’s First Amendment rights.

Now Molly Norris, an American citizen, is forced into hiding because she exercised her right to free speech. Will President Obama say a word on her behalf? Does he believe in the First Amendment for anyone other than Muslims?

Abigail R. Esman at Forbes writes:

Let me repeat: The U.S. government is suggesting that Ms. Norris change her name, strip away her past, possibly even change her appearance, because she has been targeted by Muslim extremists who are not amused by her work or her ideas. Rather than protect her, rather than defend her, rather than stand up for her Constitutional and democratic rights, declaring their intention to route al-Awlaki out and bring him (and others who are threatening her life) to justice, the American government, as it were, is itself in essence allying with him by taking away her freedom and her life.

Now listen. I will say this again: I emphatically support Molly Norris’ right to safety. I think it is terrible that she has to go into hiding, and I can only imagine the fear and distress that she is feeling right now.

But. I 100% do not support Norris’ right to mean-spirited mockery. I do not support anyone’s right to belittle, poke fun at, show insensitivity or thoughtlessness towards anyone else’s system of belief – but especially at Islam, seeing how it seems to have become some sort of Liberal American pastime to see who can make the most Islamophobic joke.  And this is while the rights of Muslims to pursue their system of belief is under attack, all across the Western world.

And of course I support free speech. I support informed dissent. But what Norris did – and South Park, and Jyllends Posten and any other fool who carries on creating images of Muhammad as if to do so is some act of inspired and noble rebellion – was not informed dissent.  It was a nasty and childish response to being told, for once, that there was something we are not allowed to do, or cannot have.

In her letter of apology distancing herself Draw Muhammad Day, Norris writes:

My one-off cartoon does not work well as a long-term plan. The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. Only Viacom and Revolution Muslim are to blame, so…draw them instead!

I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off…

That part of the letter I liked. This part of Norris’ letter I did not like:

My cartoon was the beginning and end of what I had to say about this creepy, historic censorship.

Creepy, historic censorship? How is a religious idea about how to show respect to your deity “creepy”? All religions have rules and ideas about the best way to show respect to God. In Judaism God’s name is never pronounced.  In Catholicism you must bow before the altar every time you walk in front of it.  I am sure any religion in existence has strict rules about addressing God and his messengers – after all, isn’t the very backbone of religion the idea of the sacred, where “sacred” means that which is entitled to veneration or respect?

Sometimes it appears as if  any benign request made by another power to the Western, white, (culturally) Christian world (WWCCW), is received as an affront. As in, how dare anyone else tell us what to do? WE RUN THIS PLACE! As in, this refusal is an extreme manifestation of the way that certain Western, white, cultural Christians think they are entitled to do anything and consume anything, because they are the West, the boss of this town, and ain’t no one ever going to tell them what to do.

Even if “what to do” is a rule relating to something that doesn’t concern the WWCCW at all – for example, depictions of Muhammad.  It is like watching a kindergarten bully stamp around the playroom knocking over other kids’ desks, because they have dared to do or have something that doesn’t include the bully – and then dared to ask that the bully respect the preciousness of those things. This is the core of entitlement.

Absolutely nothing entitles any non-Muslim to an opinion about depictions of Muhammad. If Islam had laws about the depiction of universal symbols, say, like any manifestation of God, and threats of violence were made whenever anyone drew these things, that would be one thing. But it is beyond me why the depiction of a solely Muslim entity concerns anyone who does not follow the teachings of Muhammad. And yet it feels like every few months another scandal rears it head where some a-hole decides to draw Muhammad. For what? For the pleasure of causing hurt and pain to Muslims by showing them you completely disrespect their beliefs, simply because you can?

I do not confuse my support and sympathy for Norris’ right to safety, with support and sympathy for her right to be disrespectful and mocking.  I do not believe that the latter right, is a right.

And if supporting only some rights to free speech and not others (namely, I don’t support the right to free speech that is arrogant and mocking) means that I don’t truly support free speech…well then, eff it. I don’t support free speech. Honestly, I’d rather be called a draconian censor than join the ranks of my fellow, select Westerners who have never truly learnt what it means to respect someone or something beyond their own worldview.


Photo Credit: Ikhwan Web