This month the U.S. publisher Random House planned to launch an historical novel about Aisha, the wife of the prophet Muhammad. The book was a rarity in Islamic-themed literature: an attempt by a Western woman to fictionalize the personal life of the prophet, and to bring to a wider audience one of the great feminist heroines of the Middle East.
Instead, three months ago, Random House decided to abandon publication of "The Jewel of Medina", by journalist Sherry Jones. Fearing the book might incite the same violent reaction as the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and that company staff and property might comes under attack from Muslim extremists, Random House terminated Jones' contract, as reported by Asra Nomani, who first broke the story in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Random House was particularly concerned about a scene in which the Prophet Muhammad consummates his relationship with Aisha, a child bride. It's a short scene, and not to everyone's taste, in which Muhammad's embrace is likened to a "scorpion's sting", but it hardly amounts to "soft core pornography", as the university professor who first raised objections to the book, Denise Spellberg, has described it.
(Read Spellberg's take on the controversy here.)
But Random House's decision to bow down to a hypothetical terrorist threat is surely a grave insult to the Western tradition of free speech, and to Muslims' ability to take the book for what it is: a decidedly glowing portrayal of the Prophet (in marked contrast to the Muhammad Cartoons, or indeed Satanic Verses).
Here, Jones gives an eloquent defense of her book, and explains why we should all take note of Random House's assault on our freedoms.
By Sherry Jones
" 'I can't' never does anything," my mother used to say. " 'I can' does it all."
When I set out to write a book about A'isha bint Abi Bakr, favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, I never doubted that it would be published. After all, I had all the elements I needed for a terrific work of historical fiction: a remarkable heroine, little known in the West; a famous hero, widely misunderstood here; a setting unfamiliar yet exotic; and an exciting tale of love, war, spiritual awakening and redemption.
Five years and seven drafts later, I had indeed landed a publisher for "The Jewel of Medina." Not just any publisher, either, but Random House, the biggest house in the world. I was thrilled not only by the two-book deal, which included a sequel detailing A'isha's life after Muhammad's death, but also by the passion with which everyone at the publishing company seemed to embrace this novel. I was thrilled, but not surprised.
Soon, the foreign rights sales started coming in: Spain, Italy, Hungary. I still wasn't surprised. My agent called to tell me of an eight-city U.S. book tour -- gratifying, but not surprising. Book of the Month Club signed on to feature "The Jewel of Medina" in its August 2008 issue, and Quality Paperback Book Club would follow up six months later. My book seemed destined for the best-seller list.
Then, a university professor, asked for an endorsement, called Random House with warnings of a terrorist attack by angry Muslims if my book were published. "A national security issue," University of Texas associate professor Denise Spellberg reportedly said. "More dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons."
Now this surprised me -- stunned me, in fact. The follow-up letter from her lawyer provided the second hit in Ms. Spellberg's one-two punch, threatening to sue Random House if her name were associated with my book in any way, including, I assume, a listing in my bibliography. Her reason had me reeling: She objected, she said, to the book's "sexual content," of which there is almost none.
Several weeks later, Random House associate publisher Elizabeth McGuire delivered the final blow. After consulting with other academic "experts" in Islam as well as the company's head of security, Random House executives had decided to "indefinitely postpone" publication. Not because of terrorist threats, mind you -- but because of threats of terrorist threats. Because, in other words, of fear.
I was, of course, devastated by this news, coming as it did less than three months before my Aug. 12 publication date. I was also chagrined to realize the far-reaching ramifications of this historic decision to quash a work of art before it could even reach the public eye. Is Random House no longer publishing books about Islam? How does this bode for the future of publishing? What will be banned next? Art? Music? Theater? Dance?
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?
I'm optimistic, but not naive. I expected my book to spark controversy. "The Jewel of Medina" is a novel of women's empowerment, never a popular theme among fundamentalists of any faith. I was also aware that some would take offense at any fictional portrayal of Muhammad, especially one by a non-Muslim American woman. Given the respect with which I treat the Muslim prophet, however, I never expected to be killed because of it. I still don't.
As an advocate for peace, I have high hopes for "The Jewel of Medina" and its sequel, in which A'isha and her rival, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, are dual protagonists facing off in the first Islamic civil war. Already I've had many requests for interviews with Muslim journalists and have been invited to participate in a 90-minute chat on IslamOnline.org, a Muslim website which boasts of 13 million hits weekly.
This type of dialogue is long overdue. So far, discussion has centered around my not-published book, which almost no one has read. Soon, I hope, we will address the text itself, in published form, and my ideas, derived from research and experience, of moderate Islam as a religion of egalitaranism and, yes, peace.
In the meantime, using A'isha as my example, I challenge all to do as I am striving to do: Rise up against the culture of fear that pervades our society, refuse to succumb to racism, stand up for our rights, and live courageous lives.
Journalist Sherry Jones is a correspondent for BNA, an international news agency in the Washington, D.C. area, and for Women's eNews in New York. "The Jewel of Medina" is her first novel.