A brouhaha in the publishing world is raising the specter that violence seen in protests to Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, or in reaction to a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, could take place in the United States.
The Jewel of Medina, a novel by Sherry Jones, was supposed to hit bookstore shelves Tuesday. But publisher Random House dropped the book at the last minute after being advised it could be offensive to some Muslims. In a statement, the company added:
"(B)ut also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.
We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously. We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions.
We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some. However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it also bears, and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, Inc., booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the book."
The company declined a request for more information, including more about the security experts and scholars it consulted. So what happens next? Jones is free to shop The Jewel of Medina to other publishers. If none is willing to replace Random House, free speech advocates fear a chilling precedent has been set. Books, even works of fiction, can be silenced not in the face of threats, but out of the fear that threats could develop.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian who moved to America to protect herself from death threats from Muslim extremists, accused Random House of letting a small minority of people dictate corporate decisions. If that stands, the problem will grow, she told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) in an interview, nodding to current events in Europe. "A majority of the decision makers in Europe agreed on a strategy of doing nothing to offend Muslims and terrorism will disappear. It led to demand after demand after demand to the point that the Archbishop of Canterbury is saying Sharia law is an inevitability."
The episode offers moderate Muslims in America a chance to demonstrate their openness by standing in support of Jones and the publication of her work, Hirsi Ali said, but she does not expect any groundswell from major national organizations. "There will be no large demonstrations of moderate Muslims taking to the street saying 'Please don't offend us. Publish this novel.'"
The story first was highlighted by Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter writing in an Aug. 6 op-ed piece in her former paper. The book might indeed offend some readers, Nomani said. But Random House backed off out of concern a threat might develop, not because of any actual risk to the company and its employees.
"I'm not naïve about the fact that this kind of stuff can spread like wild fire," Nomani said in an interview with the IPT. Her own writings and pursuit of gender equality within Islam have subjected her to death threats. "I also think that we can't be paralyzed by that kind of fear. We need to be smarter than that fear."
Random House could have orchestrated a public relations campaign to address the controversy up front. It could have organized public meetings, offered bibliographies and engaged in damage control routinely employed by corporations. "If they can't figure out how to outsmart a bunch of radical, violent extremists, who can?" she asked.
Jones, meanwhile, is shopping for a new publisher. She declined a request for an interview, saying "I do not want to spend any more energy discussing my book before it is published." But in a column, she described her five-year effort to research, write and rewrite the book. Initially, its prospects looked strong, with a promotional tour and foreign sales rights in the works. But, she acknowledged, her book is "a novel of women's empowerment, never a popular theme among fundamentalists of any faith."
The trouble started when advance copies of The Jewel of Medina were distributed in search of endorsements. Denise A. Spellberg, a University of Texas history and Middle East studies professor, found the work historically inaccurate and potentially outrageous to Muslim readers.
"As an expert on Aisha's life," Spellberg wrote in a letter to the Journal, "I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims." She took issue with Nomani's article, which cast Spellberg as the instigator leading to the Random House withdrawal. She didn't have the power to do such a thing, she wrote.
Nomani disagreed, saying Spellberg's alarmist reaction was "the spark that prompted them to start raising the red flags."
Even alt.Muslim.com website editor Shahed Amanullah, who may have contributed to Random House's decision by sending out an email relating Spellberg's concerns that ended up on a Shiite website seemed to take issue with the outcome.
"Anyone should have the right to publish whatever they want about Islam or Muslims - even if their views are offensive - without fear of censorship or retribution. Muslims, however, shouldn't be expected to be passive consumers of these views. An offended Muslim has the right - indeed, the responsibility - to vigorously critique anything written about them or their religion, provided they do not cross the line into intimidation and coercion. In an ideal world, both parties would open their minds enough to understand the other point of view.
Getting people on both sides of this equation to follow these guidelines will take a lot of reconditioning. But the alternative - a hyper-sensitive Muslim community that is unable to constructively respond to external criticism (or internal criticism, for that matter), coupled with a journalistic/artistic/secular community that feels genuine fear and is prevented from free expression - cannot be an option. We are witnessing today the stagnation and increased misunderstanding that comes from a stifled discourse."
In her essay, Jones found Spellberg's reaction contrary to the mission of an academic:
"As a journalist for the last 28 years, I hold the right to free speech especially dear. The First Amendment is, in my view, the very best thing about living in the United States. Publishing houses can, of course, do whatever they want. But university professors? Ms. Spellberg urged Random House to abstain from publishing. The reason, she is telling reporters now, is that she doesn't like my book. Does this development mean our public universities no longer support the free exchange of ideas?"
In addition, there can be more than one interpretation of history beyond Spellberg's, said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Bertin said she needed to know more about how Random House reached its decision before casting judgment. The company has a solid reputation overall and they "don't have a history of pulling things thoughtlessly or in a knee-jerk way."
In general, publishers are supposed to defend authors' rights to say what they want, especially in works of fiction, she said. She did say she found the Random House release explaining what happened unfortunate because of the impression it created.
In fiction, an author should be granted license even for "flights of fancy." Episodes like this one fit under a concept familiar to First Amendment advocates as the "heckler's veto," she said.
"You can't restrict speech based on the crankiest member of the community and the most reckless member of the community," Bertin said.
Hirsi Ali has devoted her life to combating the crankiest and most reckless elements. As she describes in her autobiography, Infidel, she broke away from her family after being set up for an arranged marriage. She moved to the Netherlands, where she became a member of parliament. But she had to flee in 2004 after Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered. Hirsi Ali collaborated with Van Gogh on the production of "Submission," a short film depicting what she saw as the oppression women face in Islam. It interspersed images of an abused woman with Quranic passages.
Van Gogh's murderer left a note on his body saying Hirsi Ali would be next. In the U.S., Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) spokesman Ibrahim Hooper dismissed her as "just another Muslim basher on the lecture circuit."
With The Jewel of Medina, Random House's concern was misdirected, Hirsi Ali said. "There is so much out there about the wives of the Prophet that offends rational people. It's all in defense of polygamy, telling us fables of how all these women lived happily together."
Still, Hirsi Ali predicts a "happy ending" for Jones, in part because the American market is freer than Europe's. "I expect there are any number of publishers who will say, 'Thank you, Random House, for making all this free publicity for us.'"