Cartoonists around the world reacted defiantly to Wednesday's deadly Islamist terror attack at the offices of a Paris magazine, but the case of Molly Norris shows how the attack and prior threats of similar violence have already had a chilling effect on journalists who use art to convey their stories.
Norris, a Seattle-based political cartoonist, has been in hiding for more than four years after she launched "Draw Muhammad Day," a call to professional and amateur artists alike to sketch the Islamic prophet whose image is forbidden by the Koran.
“We are no longer a free country if we journalists can’t criticize a religion that, for example, believes apostates need to be killed.”
Norris was an obscure cartoonist and blogger who took action after the creators of the show South Park were targeted by Muslim extremists for an upcoming episode in which Muhammad was to be depicted. The hit show's producers caved to the pressure of death threats and blurred the image of Muhammad when the show aired.
Norris' own cartoon image of Muhammad was never published in the Seattle Weekly, which often carried her work, but it went viral on the Internet. U.S. born Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki issued a fatwa, calling for the killing of Norris.
“We are no longer a free country if we journalists can’t criticize a religion that, for example, believes apostates need to be killed,” said Norris' onetime colleague, Larry Kelley.
Even though Norris backed off the idea for a “Draw Muhammad Day,” the bounty remained. She took her concerns to the FBI, and agents in the Seattle field office told her the threats on her life were legitimate. She was encouraged to go underground.
Seattle Weekly reported that Norris moved, changed her name and is living in hiding akin to the witness protection program. Editors have not heard from Norris and they have received no more cartoons from her.
One Seattle Muslim leader who tried unsuccessfully to have Norris participate in an open forum is angry that her freedom of speech was trampled on.
“I’m very upset that there would be people who would cause her to go into hiding,” says Jeff Siddiqui of American Muslims of Puget Sound. “I am somewhat upset that she got so fearful that she can’t respond to Muslims that are reaching out to her.”
Larry Kelley has tried to raise money for Norris. He created the Molly Norris Foundation. Fundraising has been slow, mainly because her story has not received much attention.
“It was like a one-day story, then it was gone,” says Kelley. “She went underground and that was it, gone. And most people don’t even know who Molly Norris is.”
Norris did, however, outlive the man who put a price on her head. Al-Awlaki was killed in 2011 in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike.