Norris was an easygoing Seattle freelance illustrator with a self-described “sophomoric” sense of humor, which she said explained her appreciation of the show “South Park.” When a radicalized former George Mason University student, himself a onetime fan of that Comedy Central cartoon, threatened “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone over their attempts to satirize the Islamic prophet Muhammad, he ended up receiving a 25-year sentence. (And just this past January, in the hours after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was reported that this ex-student turned Muslim convert, Zachary Chesser, had sued Colorado prison officials over alleged limitations on practicing his faith.)
In 2010, the then-20-year-old convert had to know that his online threat against “South Park,” amid his mission of jihad, could lead to a long incarceration.
But almost as soon as she published her “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” cartoon in April of 2010, Norris began to back away from its message. In visual defense of the “South Park” creators, she had suggested that people respond by, in effect, “flooding the zone” — with the belief being that jihadist Muslims can’t silence thousands, or millions, and that free speech triumphs by unity and omnipresence, and that a bully can’t go after everyone.
But Norris quickly regretted her own art, and the message it spread, and the global May event it ignited. “I made a cartoon that went viral but [this campaign] isn’t really my thing,” Norris told me several days after her illustration ran. “Other folks have taken it over.”
She tried everything to distance herself from the social-media event that May 20. She tried to divert energies into “Everybody Draw Al Gore Day.” She made a video in which she apologized to “everyone of the Muslim faith who has or will be offended.” She urged a coming-together of Muslims and non-Muslims. And she attended a Seattle-area Seerah conference started in 2006 in the wake of the Danish “cartoon crisis.” “The folks there had to babysit me,” she told me at the time, “because I was so upset by this whole viral phenomenon.”
She now fully understood the degree to which some Islamic people consider any depiction of Muhammad blasphemous, let alone satirical cartoons of him. But she could not deboard the particular train she herself had pulled out of the station. Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexican-born Yemeni-American cleric, put her on an “execution list” along with some of the Danish-cartoon figures, before he himself was executed by U.S. drone strike (reportedly the first American citizen to be so killed — a little more than a year after issuing his list.)
Al-Awlaki, dead at 40, knew the battleground he was standing on when he said that Norris’s “proper abode was hellfire.” Again, by comparison, Norris did not.
FBI officials told Norris in the summer of 2010 about “a very serious threat” against her life, and by mid-September, she changed her name at the FBI’s guidance and went into hiding. “Molly Norris” was no more. As she told me at the time, flashing that characteristic humor: “Fatwas suck.”
I relive all this today, five years after that first viral event, because now, after the Charlie Hebdo firebombing and subsequent massacre — and after Sunday evening’s shootout in Garland, Texas, outside a “caricature Muhammad” art show left two gunmen dead — Molly Norris may well be the last true naïf artist when it comes to Muhammad satire and the proximity of violence. Death now seems to stalk this free-speech vs. blasphemous-satire debate that sits on a blue flame, primed to ignite.
When Danish editor Flemming Rose, who sparked the “Muhammad Cartoon Crisis” nearly a decade ago, tells me last fall that a new printing of his book “Tyranny of Silence” does not actually reprint any of the offending cartoons, he knows what he and his Western publisher have actually decided.
When tomorrow night’s PEN ceremony presents Charlie Hebdo with a “courage” award — and when at least 145 members choose not to attend in protest — everyone knows what cards are really on the table.
And when groups like the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative win a federal ruling to run transit ads about Muslims killing Jews, and also mount a suburban Dallas “Muhammad art” show, offering a $10,000 prize for a blue-ribbon caricature of the Islamic prophet, everyone takes their positions knowing that the price for free speech sometimes turns out to be violence.
Five years after “Molly Norris,” whenever Muhammad satire is within our line of vision, no one’s eyes are still closed.