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Molly Norris Day

Post #1604 • May 20, 2013, 2:47 PM • 8 Comments hereby proclaims May 20 to be Molly Norris Day. It is named for the Seattle cartoonist who drew a cartoon in 2010 in which a cup of coffee, a domino tile, a spool of thread, and other inanimate objects all claimed to be the likeness of Mohammed. She made it in response to Comedy Central's self-censorship of two episodes of South Park that depicted Mohammed. This art was used on a poster declaring May 20, 2010 to be Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. Its rationale was that if enough people drew Mohammed, it would become impractical for mujahedeen to murder them all.

Norris meant the idea as satire, but it was taken up as a serious idea by other parties, and Norris distanced herself from it. After Facebook events for the day had reached 100,000 followers, Pakistan ordered Facebook and then Wikipedia and YouTube to be blocked. Demonstrations occurred in the streets of Pakistan prior to the event in which protesters burned Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish flags, in reference to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy that Muslim leaders had orchestrated in 2005. Many Western writers criticized the event as insensitive, irresponsible, and offensive. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American and Yemeni cleric who was subsequently killed by the CIA in 2011 under orders from President Obama, issued a fatwa calling for Norris's death. The FBI advised Norris to take a lower profile, citing intelligence and security concerns, and Norris voluntarily changed her name and went into hiding. will today and hereafter observe May 20 by remembering incidents in the prior year in which acts of free speech and creative expression gave rise, or threatened to give rise, to violence and censorship, and otherwise prompted feckless apologetics on behalf of those who would deprive us of our liberties. Feel free to add additional suggestions via comments.

Pussy Riot

On August 17, 2012, three members of Russian feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years of prison, convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a protest they staged previously in February in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. One of them was later paroled on a suspended sentence. Two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, remain in jail. Other members of Pussy Riot fled Russia in fear of prosecution. Efforts to win parole for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina continue, as reported by the website Free Pussy Riot, though they have been hampered by multiple charges against both of violations of prison rules such as "getting up late" and "handing private correspondence to a lawyer."

"The Innocence of Muslims"

In September 2012, protests and riots exploded across the Muslim world incited by "The Innocence of Muslims," a once-screened but repeatedly, partially uploaded film with a murky production history traced to a Los Angeles man currently identified as Nakoula Baseeley Nakoula. The attacks included a particularly fierce one upon an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Lybia in which Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other diplomats were killed in RPG and small arms fire. (Another notable attack took place a week later in what was reported to be the first suicide bombing carried out by a woman in Afghanistan.) An early statement from the State Department delivered by Ambassador Susan Rice called the Benghazi attack "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo." Since then the administration has backtracked on that explanation amidst much controversy about the real causes.

New York Anti-Jihad Transit Ads

On September 24, 2012, after New York's Metro Transit Authority lost a legal challenge from the American Freedom Defense Initiative, it posted the group's advertisements in subways around the city. The ads read, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, Defeat Jihad." Most of the advertisements were vandalized. Shortly afterward the MTA modified its policy for "viewpoint advertisements" so as to require a disclaimer that its display did not imply MTA endorsement. This was accomplished in time for a December campaign by the AFDI in which a picture of the burning Twin Towers appeared alongside a quote from the Koran, "Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers." For this campaign the AFDI rented space along the subway system's many clocks, presumably out of easy reach of vandals. Kyle Chayka, reporting for Hyperallergic under the headline "A New, Even More Graphic Anti-Islamic Subway Ad," protested that "it’s hard not to view the advertisements as hate speech. Yet AFDI actually won a federal court case in July, defending its campaigns as protected under free speech." The question of what qualifies as hate speech, which your author put to Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian, drew this response: "It's not my job to suggest them [sic] and I'm not really interested in doing so."

Charlie Hebdo's "Life of Mohammed"

In January 2013, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published The Life of Mohammed, described by editor Stéphane Charbonnier as "perfectly halal" and which put writings about the subject into comics form. On the day of its release, France closed twenty of its embassies. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault noted that while freedom of expression is guaranteed in France, it "should be exercised with responsibility and respect." Two groups, the Algerian Democratic Union for Peace and Progress and the Organization of Arab Union, have sued the magazine for €780,000 in costs and damages, claiming that the publication was "damaging to the honor and reputation of the Prophet Mohammed and the Muslim community." According to the organizations' lawyer, "They stigmatized Muslims and provoked hatred," and added that "caricatures does not mean anything goes."

Cameron D'Ambrosio

Earlier this month a teen from Methuen, MA was arrested for felony bomb threats for a Facebook message that read, "Fuck a boston bomb wait till u see the shit I do, I’m be famous rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me!" Initial reports said that bail was set at $1 million; he is currently being held without bail. Police also confiscated his computer and his xBox 360.



Piri Halasz

May 22, 2013, 7:14 PM

You know, I am really with the Moslems on this one. That is because I was brought up to respect other people’s religions. I’m such an antique that I remember the idea of the Four Freedoms, originally formulated by FDR, used as our justification for World War II and with the aid of Eleanor, incorporated into the United Nations preamble (or whatever it’s called). The four freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Our country historically has been particularly sympathetic to this concept of freedom of worship—many different nationalities have immigrated to the US over the centuries to be able to practice their own religions in peace. This is what I learned in school, I’m afraid, and as a result of all this upbringing, I would not spit on a crucifix in the presence of a Catholic, I would not trample a Torah in the presence of a Jew, and, if the Moslems regard the depiction of Mohammed as a sacrilege, I would not make depictions of Mohammed and I would apologize for those who do, not imitate them. The fact that Moslems may be uncivilized enough to try and kill those who commit sacrilege is no excuse for us pouring oil on the fire—it only drags us down to their level.

Nor am I impressed by the argument that committing sacrilege is justified by "freedom of the press." I have been a journalist long enough to know that even the press has its limitations. If you libel somebody, you may get sued and have to a pay a lot of money. Also if you publish intimate details about somebody who is not a public figure, you can get sued for invasion of privacy. For that matter, if you merely make unjustified allegations in a speech, you can get sued for slander. There is a difference between liberty and license. I don’t know who said it first, but I have heard it said that liberty ends and license begins where your fist meets my nose. Plus, such uncivilized behavior on the part of the Molly Norrises of this world only exacerbates what is already a very tense situation in the Middle East.



May 28, 2013, 8:40 AM

Spitting upon or trampling something is universally recognizable as an act of disrespect, and probably would have been so to our Neanderthal ancestors. Drawing is not. The drawing of Mohammed falls into a category of disrespect that presupposes an adoption of local mores, akin to a man's leaving his head covered in church, or not covering it in a synagogue. The problem with the analogy is that if you were the guest of a house of worship, it would be reasonable to be asked to follow the house's customs. The Muslim demand that no one, even unbelievers, depict Mohammed is tantamount to insisting that metaphorically, the Muslim house extends everywhere. It would be like the Jews campaigning to criminalize pork.

Jews and Protestant Christians, of course, are also iconoclasts. They exercise this by refraining from certain kinds of imagery in their houses of worship. That is their right, and they insist upon nothing more. The side effect of their stance on imagery is that we owe Western art history to the Catholics. How any supporter of the arts can side with iconoclasts, in general, escapes me, and their sympathy with this alien imposition of iconoclasm is a dire misunderstanding of civility. I would not draw Mohammed for the express purpose of insulting Muslims, or for any other reason, really. But someone had cause to draw him as an act of criticizing Islam, which we all should be free to do, and the ensuing violence was such that this freedom is now an open question. I'll say this—I'm at least as offended by these affronts to freedom of expression and conscience as any Muslim is offended by depictions of his prophet, I'm as ready to exact apologies and concessions from such people for insulting my mores, and I'm of the mind that violence committed in the name of perceived blasphemy ought to be answered, not with chastened scraping, but with police action where it is possible and retaliation where it is not.

I'd like to add that the reason there are modern depictions of Mohammed in a particular, recognizable form is thanks to a convention that was established in Islamic art. Muslim iconoclasm is to a great degree a contemporary phenomenon and a politically motivated one.


Piri Halasz

May 31, 2013, 3:45 PM

“Muslim iconoclasm is to a great degree a contemporary phenomenon and a politically motivated one.” Indeed, politics is politics and religion is religion. However, I’d argue that Molly Norris was more concerned with politics than religion. She wasn’t setting herself up as a spokesman for any religion, she was claiming her Constitutional privilege to freedom of speech--but the Constitution is a political document, not a religious one like the Bible, the Torah or the Koran. Freedom of speech is a political concept, not a religious one—even you, Franklin, don’t pray to the Constitution every day (or do you?) And our society (and, for that matter, our Constitution) recognizes freedom of worship as just as important as freedom of speech (both are protected under the First Amendment). This to me suggests that when another religion is offended, it can become a criminal offense. Or anyway it does in New York, where anti-Jewish slogans painted on walls can be prosecuted under our “hate crime” laws—though I have yet to hear of any cases where anti-Moslem slogans were prosecuted under this law, and maybe other states don’t have similar legislation.

Of course, I don’t condone violence as a response to the offense of one’s religion. I overstated myself in my original comment—but on the other hand, I think there is a fundamental lack of understanding here that contributes to a more dangerous and unsatisfactory political situation. Moslems –an awful lot of them, anyhow—seem to take their religion more seriously than Christians and Jews. When their religious beliefs are aroused, they can and have taken to violence, and, although we in the West may say this is a very uncivilized way to react, the fact is that every Western religion, in its time, has taken to violence when its beliefs were offended. The Jews haven’t cast out anybody to be killed by the civil authorities since the days of Jesus, of course, but during the Reformation and Counter Reformation, there were plenty of people in Europe getting killed, Catholics as well as Protestants, in religious wars, and, far as the Catholics were concerned, the Inquisition kept on turning over heretics to be burned at the stake right up to the 17th and maybe 18th century.

We flatter ourselves that we have now reached a more tolerant level of religious belief, where we think nobody should get killed for their religious beliefs (or lack of them—in my case, I would have been burned at the stake because I don’t believe any organized religion has an exclusive pipeline to God). However, if so many Moslems in the Middle East still feel as passionately about their religion as we superior types in the Western world used to, it’s only courtesy and common sense to respect that instead of going out of the way to cause offense. One cannot, after all, expect people to behave rationally where religion is concerned, and if this country had as many Moslems as it has Catholics, you can bet that when they complained about depictions of Mohammed, there would be just as much consideration for their position as is currently accorded the Catholic position on family planning. Apparently, then, hate speech is okay in international situations, but I don’t think it should be—not if we are seriously interested in achieving world peace.



June 2, 2013, 10:38 AM

It's time to have a fresh look at the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is clear. Our government may neither establish nor prohibit religion, and it may not abridge freedom of speech. It doesn't follow from this that offending a religion with speech is criminal. It follows instead that abridging speech for the sake of religion is criminal. People are free to worship as they see fit, and people are free to say what they like about it. People do not have a right to not be offended. Nor should they. If they did the country would end up being run by a cadre of prigs.

New York's hate crime laws call for heightened penalties for actions that are already classified as misdemeanors and felonies. This is already a bad idea, in my opinion, but even so it doesn't punish expression.

We here in the West are matter-of-factly superior for embracing religious tolerance, secularism, and freedom of speech. Yes, the West hasn't completely or always done so (those religious atrocities leading up to the 18th century are the explicit reason that we have a secular state in the first place) and the East hasn't completely or always rejected them (the cosmopolitan center of the world, with commensurate religious tolerance, circa 900 AD, was Baghdad). But we're not merely flattering ourselves. Societies that value freedom over religion are superior to societies that value religion over freedom. As individuals we might elect to this practice or that courtesy, but as a citizenry we owe nothing to anyone in the world in this regard. In fact, others not in agreement owe it to us to modernize. If none of us may offend, then let's talk about my feelings of offense at the hanging of homosexuals, the forcing of women to dress in what are essentially dark tents, "honor" killings, and the threatened and realized assassination of writers and translators. If you're "seriously interested in achieving world peace," you're not going to get it by sacrificing modernity, and religion in a modern person—and a modern people—is a private matter of conscience and fellowship.



June 2, 2013, 12:23 PM

Speaking of going out of one's way to offend, in response to the Jyllands-Posten's printing of the Mohammed cartoons, the Iranian state-run paper ran a Holocaust cartoon contest. Not only did riots not ensue, but Art Spiegelman of Maus fame submitted entries and Jyllands-Posten published the contest winners. If that's not superior in all respects to the violence and puerile lamentation that were supposedly an inevitable consequence of the Mohammed cartoons, I don't know what is.


Piri Halasz

June 3, 2013, 2:57 PM

I did a great deal of reading about the First Amendment, back in the days when George W. Bush was trying to siphon taxpayer dollars to religious organizations under the pretext that these monies would be used only for “social” purposes. He ultimately succeeded because even Bill Clinton had started in with this rot during his term in office. And it still riles me that my taxes go to support his ilk like Jerry Falwell. But the whole point of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment was to prevent situations in which one church was allowed to take precedence over any other—as for example, had been the case in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Quakers and Baptists were forced to pay taxes to support the established (Puritan/Congregationalist) church. At present, in essence (if not in law) it seems that people like Molly Norris would still privilege our own religions over those of “the infidel.” Sure, what she did was legal, but it was also hostile, and indicated an inability to see the other fellow’s point of view. When was the last time she did cartoons about Catholics and/or Jews? I would agree that the cartoonists taking part in the Holocaust contest showed a better way to go. But I am always leery of people who call themselves “superior.” Not for nothing is pride considered the original sin.


Walter Darby Bannard

June 4, 2013, 6:28 PM

Piri, these events are taking place in the context of a particular clash of cultural values. That's the big picture we must keep in mind.

It is certainly reasonable to avoid provoking loonies who might kill you for drawing a picture, but it is also reasonable to conclude that a social system which does not encourage murder as an appropriate response is superior to one that does. I think that is what Franklin meant in #4.



June 4, 2013, 11:09 PM

Piri, you're attributing motives to the former Ms. Norris, which is a poor way to argue your point, and criticism hardly has to be evenly spread to be valid—who cares whether she ever poked fun at another religion? For that matter, even if she were a foaming bigot, those who threatened her into hiding have weakened free society for all of us.

We get to call ourselves superior as long as we're acting accordingly. I reject the notion that we're supposed to refrain from judgment about mores as if they were all equal—I group it with the notion that we shouldn't claim that some art is better than other art. Said the great Mencken, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."



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