“The artist formerly known as Molly Norris,” By Christopher Stedman

Posted on September 23rd, 2010 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews

Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists. How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn't? Poor Norris - imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.

However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: "Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That's pathetic. It's bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed."

I'm disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: "The vitriol this 'day' has brought out... is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this 'day' be called off."

Unfortunately, Norris was ignored and the campaign continued. Around the time of EDMD, the Council of American-Islamic Relations issued a statement asking that, instead of reacting negatively, "American Muslims - and Muslims worldwide - should use that and every other day as an opportunity to reach out to people of other faiths and beliefs to build bridges of understanding and respect. The best and most productive response... is more communication, not less communication - including not restricting the free flow of ideas."

I applaud them for taking the high road, and I am sorry that my fellow atheists did not do the same. Instead, prominent atheists like Hemant Mehta said: "If you get offended by [EDMD], no one should be taking you seriously."

I've spoken with my friend and Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, a man whose beliefs I take seriously, many times about EDMD. He wrote a piece about EDMD that got him some flack from atheists because he took a strong position against it. And though like me he disagreed with EDMD, he has also publicly condemned the extremists who reacted to it with threats of violence. The extremists who forced Norris to go into hiding do not represent his faith, and he and other Muslims do not deserve to have their identities maligned - by those extremists or by people calling Islam "the religion of hate."

We must bring an end to such generalizations. They serve no purpose but to advance a narrative that says all religions will inevitably come into conflict. Sure enough, Terry Jones cited EDMD as the inspiration for his infamous "Everybody Burn a Koran Day." They really aren't all that different, and they both infuriated extremists around the world. Yet few conflate Terry Jones with all Christians. Why do so many struggle to similarly distinguish the extremists who targeted Norris from all Muslims?

So often I hear from other atheists that Muslims aren't speaking out against extremism, but they are. The problem is that they're largely ignored because many would rather believe that Islam is inherently violent. By ignoring Muslim voices of peace and building up "Islam" as a malevolent straw man, we play right into the hands of those we aim to condemn. Extremists thrive on the narrative that the West hates Islam.

Let's not give them any more ammunition. Want to make extremists irrelevant? Disprove their theory. Show that in America, we embrace diversity of thought. Do what Norris did in the wake of EDMD and visit a local mosque. Build coalitions to stand in solidarity against extremism and in favor of tolerance and pluralism. The first step to combating threats of violence is not to incite more. We must respond with our best selves; retaliate with threats of cooperation and kindness.

The Quran says that we ought to "support each other in kindness and piety and do not support each other in sin and in attacks" (5:2). Perhaps we could learn something from Islam instead of calling it the "religion of hate." Let us do what the artist formerly known as Molly Norris asked and find common ground with one another - for her sake if not our own.

This article was originally published on the Washington Post's On Faith blog. Today's guest blogger is Christopher Stedman, the Managing Director of State of Formation for The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the founder and author of NonProphet Status. Follow him on Twitter.

One Response to ““The artist formerly known as Molly Norris,” By Christopher Stedman”

  1. […] The Artist Formerly Known as Molly Norris I have a new blog up over at the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, The Faith Divide. This is my third piece for the them — the other two can be found here and here. The piece addresses Molly Norris and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which I have written about several times. [Update: This piece has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.] […]