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Americans must not be cowed by Muslim objections to cartoons

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By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, July 18, 2010

When H.L. Mencken said that Puritanism was "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," he was barely grazing the iceberg of the titanic fundamentalism to come.

Yes, those pesky, humor-challenged jihadists are at it again. A group of radical Muslims, whose promises to sacrifice their souls can't be kept soon enough, apparently won't be satisfied until happy people everywhere are dead.

In yet another sequel in the series, another cartoonist fatwa has been issued.

Stifling yawns would be a natural response at this juncture of outrage fatigue, except that an American woman's life is at stake. Molly Norris doodled, and now she must die, says American-Yemeni Islamic cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, or Wacky-Doodle (WD) for short.

You may recall that Norris, once a relatively unknown Seattle cartoonist, was first threatened a few months ago by some bloggers on an obscure Web site, Revolution Muslim, for attempting to draw the prophet Muhammad. More recently, she has been named to an execution list on Inspire, a new online English-language al-Qaeda magazine, which aims to recruit American Muslims for jihad.

Calling Norris a "prime target," WD also named eight other cartoonists, authors and journalists -- Swedish, Dutch and British citizens -- as targets, all for their "blasphemous caricatures" of the prophet.

Drawing or creating any likeness of the prophet, you may also recall, is against the rules among certain fundamentalists, though not all Muslims agree that such a prohibition exists. But even if it did, there would be no reason for a non-Muslim cartoonist to censor herself. Our laws guarantee the right to free expression, no matter the vehicle. End of story. We may not always like what the First Amendment permits, but we've agreed as a nation that the short-term aggravation of personal offense is the tithe we pay for freedom.

The Norris cartoon that drew such fire was a childlike illustration -- a poster calling for an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" that showed various household contents (a spool of thread, a teacup, a cherry, a domino and a doggie purse), all claiming to be the prophet.

At the time, Norris said that she was only trying to poke fun at Viacom and Comedy Central for their decision to censor a "South Park" episode showing the prophet in a bear suit. (We are indeed living in "Toon Town" when a bear suit-wearing cartoon figure can get you killed in the name of Allah. Shouldn't Porky Pig be making his entrance about now, saying "Th-th-th-that's ALL folks?" Or would that be blasphemous, too?)

Although Norris quickly removed the cartoon from her Web site, sympathizers created a site inviting any and all to draw the prophet. At this point, things really did become childish as Islamophobes could legitimize their own radical tendencies under the guise of humor and the umbrella of constitutional protection.

Nobody ever said that free speech isn't messy.

I take a back seat to no one in defending our right to free expression and have written often in defense of cartoonists, specifically. Cartoons may be the ultimate test of our tolerance because they so easily slip beneath the skin and because they are, in fact, so hard to defend. We even extend freedom of expression to the evil and stupid, figuring it is better that hate and ignorance be exposed in the light of day than that they go underground to fester and breed.

For this reason, I don't share others' concerns that al-Qaeda now has an English-language magazine. Isn't it better to read the thoughts of WD & Co. than to wonder what they're up to? Besides, who can resist a magazine that publishes: "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom"? These people are comedy writers and don't know it.

As weary as we may be of "Jihadist vs. Cartoonist" reruns, we simply can't surrender the principle. There may be a strong argument for avoiding Muhammad cartoons in the interest of denying al-Qaeda a propaganda tool, but let's be clear about our purposes. Taking a higher road is not to capitulate to the enemy but to seek a better vantage point.

Irreverence is a tough sell in a culture steeped in reverence, but perhaps we can advance the case for nonviolent protest through example. To that end, and in support of Norris and others, 19 Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists have signed a petition condemning threats and attacks against cartoonists. The petition is posted on the Cartoonists Rights Network International Web site (http://cartoonistrights.com).

It hasn't nearly enough signatures.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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