"Everybody Draw Mohammed" cartoonist goes into hiding

Seattle Weekly reports that cartoonist Molly Norris, who came up with the idea of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" but later disavowed it, has changed her name and gone into hiding. In July, Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki called her a "prime target," and the FBI has warned her to take that threat seriously.

Last spring, reacting to Comedy Central's decision to pull an episode of South Park that spoofed the prophet Mohammed, Norris drew a tongue-in-cheek cartoon and suggested that May 20 be declared "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." The idea caught on but soon careened out of control: There was an Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Facebook page (which has also dialed back and is now devoted to inter-religious understanding), an opposing Facebook page (Ban Everybody Draw Mohammed Day), and even a real website for a fake organization Norris mentioned in her poster, "Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor or CACAH (pronounced ca-ca)."

But it turns out there is a serious downside to mocking a religious precept: People who take the precept seriously get really offended, and soon there was a backlash. By late April, Norris had washed her hands of the whole idea and asked that her cartoon be removed from several websites.

When asked about her change of heart, Norris told The Ticket that she didn't intend for the cartoon "to go viral."

Then why did she send the cartoon to the media in the first place? "Because I'm an idiot," Norris replied.

That's a little harsh. I'd say Norris made a rookie mistake: thinking the whole rest of the world is like her and her friends. What she regarded as a political comment is literally blasphemy to observant Muslims, a fact that she either didn't know or shrugged off. Unfortunately, she's paying for this mistake rather dearly — and so are a lot of innocent bystanders.

Here's why: Probably 99.99 percent of the Muslims who heard about this and were offended by it shrugged it off or kept their feelings to themselves and their immediate circle. A handful may have protested quietly, by writing on their blogs or sending a letter to the editor. Al-Awlaki seems to be the only person who has actually made a threat, but it only takes one: The comments to every article I have read about this have consisted almost entirely of slurs on Muslims, ranging from the snarky ("There's your religion of peace") to the frighteningly hateful. What started as a tongue-in-cheek comment on freedom of speech has ended up bringing out the worst aspect of that freedom, the freedom to hate in public.

Did the cleric overreact? Of course. If I were to desecrate a consecrated host (probably the worst thing you can do in the eyes of Catholicism, which is my religion), the Pope would not order me killed, but some wacko somewhere might write on his blog that I should die in a fire. That does not mean that all Catholics are violent and unhinged. My guess is that the FBI and Norris are not worried about your average Muslim guy on the street but rather the lone crazy guy with whom that particular fatwa hits a chord. It's a scary thing. The Internet has a short memory — I had already forgotten about "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" — but murderous psychopaths generally don't.

It's hard to do this on the Internet, but sometimes you have to distinguish between crazy people and the rest of the group. Right now, with regard to Islam, some Americans are not doing a good job of this, and Norris, without really meaning to, has made things worse.

A few days ago, Spwug linked to a two-year-old article about how the anonymity of the Internet fosters a lack of empathy. This whole event is Exhibit A.

(Some of the info in this post came from the Comic Riffs blog at The Washington Post.)

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