Political correctness is at its most parodic precisely when it seems beyond parody. The latest bit of history to support this adage is the Middle East studies establishment’s reception of Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel of Medina (Jewel), a life of Aisha, the favorite wife of Muhammad. As Robert Spencer writes in his review of Jewel for the Winter 2009 issue of the Middle East Quarterly, Jones set out to “be a bridge-builder” who chose her historical sources selectively to ensure that her work would present a flattering picture of her subjects.
Enter Denise Spellberg, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Texas. She heard of Jewel pre-publication because Jones, in her naiveté, asked her then-publisher Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, to obtain an endorsement from Spellberg to splay across the back of the dust jacket. Spellberg is author of Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha bint Abi Bakr, which Jones cites as one of her sources. She is, in addition, a typical practitioner of the blatant bias toward things Muslim and, more particularly, Arab that has become almost ubiquitous among practitioners of Middle East studies. Put simply but accurately, this means that things Arab/Muslim = good; things American/Western = bad. Under this regime, dispassionate, fair-minded research that takes a critical look at the Middle East is more likely to be rewarded with professional ostracism than advancement.
The results of Spellberg’s fantasy-laden reading of the publisher’s galleys of Jewel is by now familiar: she threw a Texas-sized tantrum and effectively persuaded Random House (the publisher of her forthcoming Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an) to withdraw publication of the book. According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, Spellberg made a “frantic” phone call to Muslim friend Shahed Amanullah, who owns the popular site altmuslim. After telling him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history” and asking him to sound the alarm, word spread rapidly that Random House was on the verge of publishing a book on Islam that would spark worldwide violence akin to what occurred in the aftermath of the publication of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Here is a sample of what Spellberg has said about Jewel:
- A very ugly, stupid piece of work.
- A declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue.
- I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.
- (Via Jane Garrett of Random House): [Spellberg] thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses [sic] and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.
Compare those dire warnings to what Robert Spencer found in his reading:
But whoever reads The Jewel of Medina, after suffering through stilted Hollywood historical epic dialogue larded with Arabic tidbits for authenticity's sake, will wonder what the fuss was all about. True to her word, Jones offers a portrait of Muhammad that is so flattering as to be worthy of British religion writer Karen Armstrong, who compared Muhammad to Gandhi.
Jones, says Spencer, saves her harsh judgment for Muhammad’s enemies:
In keeping with this approach, Jones paints Muhammad’s enemies with lurid comic-book strokes as evil, treacherous, and repulsive. The Jews of the Qaynuqa tribe, whom Muhammad eventually exiled, lurk sinisterly in doorways and play evil pranks upon Muhammad's wives. Abu Sufyan, the Quraysh leader who fought Muhammad and the Muslims in the battles of Badr, Uhud, and the Trench, abducts and murders a friend of Aisha; Jones describes his sweat glistening “like beads of grease in every fold and crease of fat” while his accomplice’s “pocked face seemed to writhe with hatred.”
Spencer does find one instance in which, by having Aisha fall in love with Safwan ibn al-Muattal and express initial disappointment at her marriage to Muhammad, Jones ensures that “feathers will be ruffled.” But enough to justify violence? That, Spencer says, “is doubtful in the extreme.”
Spencer’s review further demonstrates that Spellberg’s solicitousness of things Muslim caused her to grossly overstate the risk involved in publishing Jewel. The British publishing house Gibson Square Books canceled publication of the book in the UK after the home of its head was firebombed. While it’s impossible to say for sure that no violence would have accompanied its publication in the UK had Spellberg never launched her hysteria-laden campaign against the book, it’s beyond dispute that Beaufort Books in the U.S. went ahead with publication, and to date no violence has occurred. Thanks to Robert Spencer’s careful review, we can better understand why: Jewel is more “soft history” than “soft pornography.”
Winfield Myers is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.