On September 30, 2005, the Danish daily Jyllands Posten touched off a tempest in the Muslim world when it published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The resulting “cartoon riots,” in which at least 139 people were killed and 823 were injured, cast into fiery relief the contrast between Western values and Islamist mores – and the threats to free speech when the two collide. Three years on, a similar controversy has emerged on American shores.
At issue is a historical novel about Aisha, the child bride of the Prophet Mohammed (Aisha was six years old at the time of the marriage). In 2007, publishing heavyweight Random House bought the rights to the novel, titled The Jewel of Medina, offering the author, journalist Sherry Jones, $100,000 in a two-book contract. Jones spent five years researching Aisha’s life, studying Arabic, and working through seven drafts before finally finishing the novel. Random House, for its part, was preparing to market the book as a “Book of the Month” selection, just as soon as the book was published this August 12.
Except that it wasn’t. Shortly before its scheduled publication, Random House decided that it would not be publishing the novel after all. The turnabout had little to do with any specific literary flaws in the book. Rather, Random House feared a violent reaction from Islamic extremists. A statement from the publisher, making no attempt to disguise the preemptive surrender to intimidation, explained that after sending out advance copies of the novel “we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources… that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.” Unwilling to stand up to Islamic radicals, Random House handed Jones her walking papers.
Ironies abound in the company’s decision to put the kibosh on the book. For instance, much of the initial indignation came from non-Muslims. Most aggrieved was one Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, whose work Jones had cited as research for her novel. Outraged by a book that she claimed “made fun of Muslims and their history,” Spellberg called Shahed Amanullah, editor of the website altmuslim.com, and encouraged him to arouse Muslim passions against the novel.
Although allegedly the offended party, Amanullah proved less easily provoked. In a commentary about Jones’s book, Amanullah defended her right to free expression. Instead of threats and intimidation, the proper “response to free speech is simply more speech in return,” he wrote, noting that “[a]nyone should have the right to publish whatever he or she wants about Islam or Muslims – even if their views are offensive – without fear of censorship or retribution.” Other Muslim writers also made the point, which evidently eluded Professor Spellberg, that one can be critical of a work without crying “Islamophobia.” Thus, the Muslim writer and poet Marwa Elnaggar, though critical of the novel, rejected the idea it should not have been published because of its “inaccuracies, its faults, and its biases.”
That left Professor Spellberg as the chief spokesman for Muslim anger that did not materialize and Sherry Jones as the victim of Muslim threats that had not been issued – an absurdity not lost on Shahed Amanullah. “The thing that is surreal for me is that here you had a non-Muslim write a book, and you had a non-Muslim complain about it, and a non-Muslim publisher pull the book,” he has said. (Professor Spellberg, whose faculty website lists her as “on-leave” from UT, did not respond to FPM’s requests for comment.)
Professor Spellberg’s overheated objections notwithstanding, The Jewel of Medina is an unlikely model of Muslim-bashing. If anything, its depiction of Aisha errs on the side of adoration. Reimagining the prophet’s wife as an unsung heroine, Jones has described her protagonist as a “remarkable figure in the history of the world, not just the Middle East.” The idea of Aisha as a kind of feminist icon avant la lettre was also adopted by Random House, whose original blurb for the novel stated that “Aisha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again…” Small wonder that Jones responded to her publisher’s capitulation by protesting that her book is “deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed.”
But to no avail. Random House preferred to shelve the book rather than incur the wrath of Muslim malcontents, real or imagined. It is a sharp break with an earlier era, when Random House published Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses, in the face of death threats against the author. Rushdie himself has taken notice, lamenting what he calls “censorship by fear” at his once-courageous publisher.
It would be inaccurate to assume that Random House applies its newfound reticence on religious subjects equally. Critics point out that this month Random House will publish The 19th Wife, a historical novel by author David Ebershoff. The book is narrated in part by Ann Eliza Young, the rebellious 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for her criticism of practices like polygamy. The book would thus seem a perfect analogue to The Jewel of Medina, but for one crucial difference: Random House will publish it.
There is a happy ending, of sorts, in Jones’s tale of publishing woe. The Jewel of Medina is slated to be published this October, after being bought by Beaufort Books, the controversy-friendly New York house best known for signing If I Did It, O.J. Simpson’s putatively fictionalized confession to the murder of his ex-wife. But with a major publishing house bowing before even the possibility of a backlash, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even with Jones’s novel in print, the state of free speech in America is less robust than it was just a few months ago.