Molly Norris is not as well known as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf or Pastor Terry Jones. But you should know who she is — even though she is no more. It will take just a moment for me to explain.
In response to threats from militant Islamists, such custodians of Western culture as Comedy Central, Yale University Press, and the Deutsche Oper have resorted to self-censorship. Norris, a cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly, was troubled by what she saw — correctly, I think — as the slow-motion surrender of freedom of expression, a fundamental right.
So she came up with an idea: “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” This may not have been a great idea — few are — but the point she wanted to make was simple enough: Freedom implies the right to criticize and caricature. This freedom is now in jeopardy because a minority of Muslims believe the majority of non-Muslims can be easily intimidated. If we all stand up for freedom, Norris thought, surely freedom’s enemies will back down.
What happened next: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric — once touted by the New York Times as a moderate but in fact an al-Qaeda commander who is currently hiding out in Yemen — issued a fatwa calling for Norris to be murdered by any Muslim willing and able. She quickly retracted her proposal for a day of mass Mohammed-sketching, but it was too late. As the Seattle Weekly cheerily informed its readers:
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. . . .
Norris views the situation with her customary sense of the world’s complexity, and absurdity. When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she joked, “Well, at least it’ll keep me from being so self-involved!” . . .
[W]e wish her the best.
In response: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who plans to build an Islamic center at the edge of Ground Zero, issued his own fatwa condemning al-Awlaki. “I am asking every Muslim in America to show solidarity with Molly!” he declared. President Obama, who championed the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom for Rauf, told reporters: “Freedom of speech also is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and my administration intends to do whatever it takes to defend it.” Joe Klein at Time and Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast quickly launched a “Molly Norris Defense Fund,” collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from artists, journalists, novelists, and Hollywood stars. The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. swung into action.
The paragraph above, of course, is pure fantasy. The truth: The saga of Molly Norris has elicited hardly any notice from political leaders, elite journalists, and celebrities. Nor has it stirred to action those who claim to represent America’s Islamic community. Nor have I seen anything from Human Rights Watch. The ACLU is actually defending al-Awlaki. At the U.N., Muslim-majority countries are pushing to ban criticism of Islam under international law.
Where does this leave us? Significantly less free than we used to be. One may satirize, criticize, and even demonize Christians and Jews. Such speech remains protected by America’s Constitution. But when it comes to Islam and the sensibilities of overly sensitive Muslims, constitutional protections are no longer to be taken seriously. To even discuss these matters, as I am now doing, risks — nay, ensures — being castigated as an Islamophobe.
But the alternative is to watch Molly Norris “go ghost” and pretend that no historic changes are occurring. It is not just Molly but America and the West that are moving, changing, “essentially wiping away” our identity. Are we still the “land of the free and the home of the brave”?
Like Molly, our political, media, and cultural elites, along with self-proclaimed defenders of our rights and self-appointed leaders of America’s Muslim community, view the situation with their “customary sense of the world’s complexity and absurdity.” And, no doubt, they wish us well.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.