by Molly Norris
'Everyone's A Critic: At the Galleries'. 

Molly Norris is a 21st-century American cartoonist from Seattle, who published in the local newspaper the Seattle Weekly. She is best known for her controversial and widely misinterpreted 'Everybody Draw Mohammed' cartoon, interpreted by many to be the instigation to an actual event, while she mostly meant it as a joke and a defense of the freedom of speech. Nevertheless, quite some Muslim fundamentalists were offended by the cartoon, which resulted in death threats and her name eventually appearing on Al-Qaeda's assassination targets list. Since then Norris went into hiding, leaving information about her current whereabouts and cartooning career unknown.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day
Virtually nothing is known about Molly Norris before the controversy broke out. In 2010 she was just an obscure female cartoonist working in Seattle, Washington, when she heard that two episodes of the American animated TV series 'South Park' by Trey Parker and Matt Stone had been banned. The episodes in question, '200' and '201', celebrated the 200th episode of the long-running controversial series by bringing all targets from their previous episodes together. The two-parter had two storylines. One revolved around Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and his denial being gay, the other about the controversy of depicting the prophet Muhammad. Although Muhammad's image was censored throughout the entire episode, '200' still caused major outrage and death threats. The second half of the episode, '201', aired a week later, but most of the dialogue in the final scenes was bleeped out. After the broadcast, both episodes were instantly made unavailable for viewing on the show's official website and have never been repeated on U.S. television. Other countries also banned the episodes. They are unavailable on the 'South Park' season DVD release too, though bootleg videos circulate on the Internet. 

The censorship and death threats against 'South Park' let to huge media debates about the freedom of speech. Several comedians, like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, and fellow cartoonists like Matt Groening, supported the makers in their right to say what they want. Seventeen cartoonists who'd previously won the Pulitzer Prize signed a special petition condemning any silencing of freedom of expression: Nick Anderson, Tony Auth, Clay Bennett, Steve Benson, Matt Davies, Mark Fiore, Jack Higgins, David Horsey, Jim Morin, Mike Peters, Joel Pett, Michael Ramirez, Ben Sargent, Paul Szep, Ann Telnaes, Garry Trudeau and Signe Wilkinson.

On 20 April 2010, Molly Norris published a one-panel cartoon under the heading: "Do you want to both water down the pool of targets and, oh yeah, defend a little something our country is famous for (but maybe not for long? Comedy Central cooperated with terrorists and pulled the episode): the First Amendment'." The cartoon made a stance that if everyone drew their own drawings of Muhammad  there would soon be too many people eligible for violent threats, thus making the entire controversy pointless. She declared one month from now, 20 May, to be the first annual "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day". Norris kicked off the event and drew a coffee cup, a domino tablet, a box of pasta, a piece of string, a bag and a cherry, all claiming to be the "real Muhammad". Afterwards she dedicated the cartoon to Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Molly Norris' controversial 'Everybody Draw Muhammad' cartoon, 2010.

Norris' 'Everybody Draw Muhammad' project instantly received online support, particularly on social networks like Facebook. Numerous people drew their own interpretations of the founder of Islamic faith. In Pakistan, Facebook was therefore temporarily blocked. The ban was lifted when Facebook agreed to just block the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" page for users in India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, Norris was surprised at the amount of support this throwaway joke received. She distanced herself from the viral campaigns, since she just wanted to make a joke. In fact, this was already made clear by the fact that her cartoon was supposedly "sponsored" by the completely fictious "Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor or CACAH (pronounced ca-ca)". The cartoonist claimed she didn't want to disrespect religion, solely defend freedom of expression. By the time 29 April 2010 rolled along, she already felt the entire project had to end: "Enough Mohammed drawings have already been made to get the point across. At this juncture, such drawings are only hurtful to more liberal and moderate Muslims, who have not done anything to endanger our first amendment rights." Instead she suggested an "Everybody Draw Al Gore Day", in reference to U.S. politician Al Gore, who is known for his stuffy public image. By 1 May 2010, Norris created a remake of her original cartoon, apologizing to Muslims worldwide.

Unfortunately this didn't convince everyone. While offended people could indeed not threaten everyone who drew the prophet, they could still target the individual who inspired the "festivity". On 11 July 2010 Molly Norris' name was printed in Inspire, the official magazine of terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, where she was put on a hitlist of people deemed acceptable for assassination. The F.B.I. advised her to keep a low profile and today she still lives in anonymity. As late as March 2013, her name was still found on the hitlist of Inspire. New names in her profession were added too, such as the cartoonists of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Carste Luste, Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks and Flemming Rose) who had made a series of cartoons poking fun at Islam and the Prophet Muhammed in 2006, and Charb, chief editor of the subversive French magazine Charlie-Hebdo, who in 2015 was murdered in a terrorist attack.

by Molly Norris
Self-portrait, 2010.

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