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Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Jewel of Medina controversy

Why did Random House suddenly cancel publication of The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones?

From "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" by Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperOne, 2006):
In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg's book, "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr."

But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims...

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

Blogworld started buzzing with the story. Lots of sympathy for Sherry and scorn for Dr. Spellberg, who responded in a letter to the WSJ today:
As a historian invited to "comment" on the book by its Random House editor at the author's express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that "The Jewel of Medina" was "extensively researched," as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha's life, 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.

I'm still processing what I want to say about this. I'll post my thoughts tomorrow, and I hope others will join the dialogue on this event, which is disturbing on so many levels.

3 comments:

Suzan Harden said...

I read Nomani's WSJ article. At first, I was appalled that this happened in the USA. Unfortunately, there's a lot more to what Denise Spellberg did than just refuse to endorse the book. I feel very sorry for Ms. Jones.

But as Nomani stated, it's no different than the furor over Rushdie. And I was working in a bookstore when 'The Da Vinci Code' hit the fan. People get very weird over ANYTHING that may POSSIBLY put their religion in an unofficial light.

This is one of the reasons I despise the idea of organized religion. Before anyone gets their hackles up, I do believe that everyone has the right to believe in whatever they wish. I don't believe everyone has the right to impose their beliefs on me or each other.

Colleen Thompson said...

I read and enjoyed THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant some years ago and have watched a profusion of Old Testament inspired novels come onto the market in its wake. Sure, people initially seemed skeptical, but if the topic's handled with respect and compassion, it simply humanizes the long dead and brings about more thoughtful interest in the scripture. This sort of fiction also personalizes the story for a lot of women, but to suppress it because it *might* offend... that makes my head hurt.

I truly believe some brave (and financially shrewd) publisher is going to pick this up. Thanks to the flap, people will be lining up to make up their own minds about the book. I know that I can't wait to read it.

Prof Ethan said...

This story demonstrates the poisonous alliance between Islamic radicals and some university faculty. The purpose of such behavior as Professor Spielberg and the "Muslim graduate students" she "alerted" about this novel is to make Islam--even in the U.S., and in contrast to ALL other religions--immune from criticism.

That is, the purpose is to give Islam a *specially privileged* position in Western society, including in the U.S., comparable to the immunity Islam enjoys from being questioned in societies where Islam is dominant. (In eight Muslim countries, apostasy from Islam is officially punishable by death.) The poisonous connecting link is "multiculturalism"--whose thinking can (a) turn Muslims into "third world victims", while (b) it does not expect *Muslims* themselves to be multicultural (i.e., tolerant).

The even larger question this story raises is this. The tradition of freedom of speech depends on everyone accepting that some things will be said that will make you uncomfortable. But what if there is a significant minority that does NOT accept this covenant? What if there is a minority that, if some members are made to feel "uncomfortable", responds with threats and violence? Since the primary duty of the government is above all to maintain social peace, the danger is that freedom of speech will go by the boards. This is already happening in places such as Canada and Holland. Less direct than outright suppression of freedom of speech are appeals to "responsibility". Translation: don't make Musllims angry. Anyone else must put up with criticism--but they cannot, and so we must adjust.

Actions such as those described in this article constitute a grave threat to the tradition of freedom of speech.

Incidentally, no serious Muslim questions that Mushammad married Aisha when she was six and consummated the marriage when she was nine.