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Originally published Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Danny Westneat

Terror threat to Seattle cartoonist should draw response

The case of the Seattle cartoonist who used to be named Molly Norris makes me wonder: Shouldn't we be sturdier than this?

Seattle Times staff columnist

The case of the Seattle cartoonist who used to be named Molly Norris makes me wonder: Shouldn't we be sturdier than this?

Last week Norris made worldwide news, when it was announced she was "going ghost" because she had been put on an Islamic terror hit list.

"There is no more Molly," wrote the Seattle Weekly newspaper, where her cartoons once ran. "On the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is ... moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity."

This news was bewildering. The FBI had insisted a U.S. citizen renounce her identity, all because some radical in Yemen doesn't like her art?

It turns out to be more complicated than that. The FBI says it never insisted Norris go underground. But it is true, her friends say, that an al-Qaida terror threat is driving a Seattleite to change her name and give up her art. It has happened without a peep of concern, either public or private, from Seattle's political power structure.

The back story is that last April, Norris, 49, drew a satirical cartoon calling for an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" She was protesting the TV network Comedy Central, which, under threat of violence from a Muslim group, had edited out references to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad from an episode of "South Park."

Norris felt the network should stand up for free speech.

What happened next is that Norris lost control of her story to the fever swamps of the Internet.

Two students in Europe started a Facebook campaign for drawing Muhammad. That attracted such a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and offensive cartoons that Pakistan briefly banned the social-network site.

Norris was horrified. She apologized. Her idea of a "day" to draw Muhammad was never serious. She had meant to back free speech, not trash an entire faith.

Two months later, Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric in Yemen with ties to al-Qaida, included Norris on a hit list of artists for making "blasphemous caricatures" of Muhammad.

It's real, the FBI warned. Agents met with Norris this summer and occasionally have checked on her since. Security experts suggested she take a lower profile, said David Gomez, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Seattle office.

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But Gomez told The Seattle Times the FBI did not insist she vanish into a sort of witness-protection program.

"Whatever she did, it is what she decided to do," Gomez said.

Pete Jackson, a local freelance writer, said he had lunch with Norris on Friday — two days after the Weekly story ran. It was his understanding the FBI's advice consisted of things like varying walking routes and, "How to do the bomb walk around your car."

"Her fear is very legitimate," Jackson said. "but some of the details are getting blown out of proportion."

Here's one: Norris never drew a likeness of Muhammad in the first place.

One of her biggest defenders turns out to be the director of the local chapter of a Muslim rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It's all a misunderstanding, he says, a sign of the inflamed times.

"She drew cute pictures of tea cups and spools of thread, asking, 'Am I Mohammed?' " says Arsalan Bukhari. "The idea of the 'Draw Mohammed Day' was insensitive, and she apologized for that. But she wasn't the founder of any anti-Muslim movement."

The two went to dinner after Norris apologized, and they became friends.

Bukhari says the real threat isn't in Yemen. It's that someone here will be incited by the terrorist in Yemen. The way to combat infectious radicalism, especially when it's based on a false premise, is to be strong, publicly, against it. While not marginalizing an entire faith.

"It's essential that we stand by her side, as a community, Muslims along with everyone else," Bukhari said. "We should stand up to people who make these kinds of threats, not look the other way."

Yet there's been a "low-grade indifference" to Norris' plight, Jackson says. Public officials haven't contacted her, not even privately.

"Here's a case of a wanted terrorist demanding the head of a Northwesterner," Jackson wrote on the Web site Crosscut. "Why, then, has Molly Norris been met by the mother of all silence?"

Maybe it's squeamishness about touching off another round of Muslim-bashing. There's also a legitimate worry that talking about Norris may make her troubles worse.

When the author Salman Rushdie was put under a fatwa, the British government not only spoke out against it, but paid for a security detail. Maybe that fanned the flames. But it was their way of not buckling.

"There's got to be a path, somewhere between the multiculturalists on the left and the Islamophobes on the right, where we can support this person who is one of us," Jackson said. "She's dangling out there."

I'm relieved to learn our government didn't compel anyone to give up who they are. But the terrorist's goal is to terrorize. It still seems we're letting this one too easily achieve it.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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