Published May 19, 2010
What started out as a cartoonist's call to action against censorship -- an open invitation to submit caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad -- has led to death threats, a court order to temporarily block parts of the website in Pakistan and a call for a boycott of Facebook to protest what Muslims believe is blasphemy.
"Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" began last month as the brainchild of a Seattle-based cartoonist named Molly Norris, who was appalled by Comedy Central's decision to censor an episode of "South Park" that depicted Muhammad in a bear costume.
As a way to protest the network's decision -- which came after an Islamic extremist website warned of retaliation against the show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker -- Norris created a poster with likenesses of Muhammad as a domino, a teacup and a box of pasta.
She declared May 20 "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" -- and her efforts quickly went viral, spawning several Facebook pages with thousands of followers dedicated to the event.
They also prompted a "protest" movement by thousands of other Facebook users opposed to it.
Now the day is almost upon us, and Norris herself has withdrawn from the cause -- but she says she's glad her efforts encouraged others to speak out.
"I just thought that Viacom or Comedy Central had overreacted to a veiled threat from a tiny blog or website that not many people even belong to, and I think it just set a precedent for a slippery slope in censorship," Norris told FoxNews.com.
"If artists have to be afraid of what they draw, then what’s the point of even living here? That's what really bothered me."
She insists she "never wanted to lead anything," but she acknowledges her brainchild ignited a controversy.
"It's turned into something completely different, nothing I could've imagined it morphing into," she said. "I'm happy some people are talking, because obviously this needs to be addressed."
As of Wednesday, more than 41,000 Facebook users associated themselves to one page dedicated to the event, and a similar page was "liked" by at least 4,400 users. More than 56,000 users, meanwhile, joined a Facebook page opposing it.
Mimi Sulpovar created her "Everybody Draw Mohammad" Facebook page on April 22 to protest what she calls the "manifestation of gradual silencing and subjugation" of free speech rights in the name of political correctness.
"I and members of my group feel that we, as citizens of the free world, should be able to discuss Islam openly and honestly -- even if it means drawing Muhammad, being very critical of some of the elements of that religion and/or culture," she wrote FoxNews.com in an e-mail.
"Our group does not advocate violence or hatred toward Muslims as people -- instead, we talk openly about Islamic practices and, of course, terrorism."
As administrator of the page, Sulpovar said she moderates users' comments and removes any references to violence or bigotry in their posts. She said she and others in the group have received death threats, but she has no plans to stop anytime soon.
"Our goal is to demonstrate that it's OK to talk about Islam specifically, and that if we want to draw Muhammad, we will not be intimidated or silenced by those who want to subjugate us simply because they find what we do offensive," Sulpovar wrote.
She said she's received about 200 depictions of Muhammad, and more than 300 caricatures have been uploaded to her page. She said she plans on continuing the campaign well after this week.
"Free speech and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are not limited to just one day -- so as far as we are concerned, every day should be 'Draw Muhammad Day,'" she wrote.
But they won't be celebrating in Pakistan, where a court on Wednesday ordered the government to block Facebook pages associated with the campaign until May 31. Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad to be blasphemous, and it is a crime punishable by death.
"The court also has ordered the foreign ministry to investigate why such a competition is being held," Azhar Siddique, a representative of the Islamic Lawyers Forum who filed a petition in the Lahore High Court, told Reuters.
Organizers of the Facebook page protesting the drawing campaign are calling for users to boycott the social networking site on Thursday -- and beyond -- for the company's inaction against the "Everybody Draw Mohammad" pages. Some say the campaign is nothing more than a way to incite Muslims.
"Now a days it has became a fashion for the west to irk muslims," one post read. "We never scolded jesus for ur misdeeds. That shows the difference of character."
A Facebook spokesman told FoxNews.com it has no plans to censor any of the pages associated with the campaign or the counter-campaign, though threats will be removed.
"Threats of violence and direct statements of hate against particular communities violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and are removed when reported to us," reads a company statement to FoxNews.com. "Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive. Groups that express an opinion on a state, institution, or set of beliefs -- even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some -- do not by themselves violate our policies. When a group created to express an opinion devolves into threats or hate speech, we will remove the threatening or hateful comments and may even remove the group itself."
The statement continued: "With now more than 400 million people around the world with varying opinions and ideals using Facebook as a place to discuss and share things that are important to them, we sometimes find people discussing and posting about controversial topics."
Matthew Quigley, a member of the "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day" group, said he joined the cause after Comedy Central censored "South Park," which happened after a message on RevolutionMuslim.com warned that the cartoon's creators "will probably end up" like Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was murdered after releasing a film critical of Islam.
"It is a line drawn in the sand," Quigley wrote FoxNews.com. "On one side are those who are unwilling to allow the threat of violence to blunt the edge of Free Speech. It is a vocal and organized and headless movement to deny extremism the power of control."
Quigley, who has already uploaded his depiction of Muhammad, said he's pleased to see the solidarity behind the cause.
"My depiction featured Muhammad staring blankly at what I imagine were the open expanses on the road between Medina and Mecca," Quigley wrote.
"Above him, in Arabic script are the words that all Muslims speak after saying his name: Sallallahu Alayhi Wasalam ("May God's Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him"). Below, in Arabic, is the phrase, 'I Love Hummus.' I think we can all connect more with a man if he likes our favorite food."