The novel you can not read

jewelofmedina 01Earlier this month, former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, penned a fascinating, newsbreaking op-ed for the paper:

Starting in 2002, Spokane, Wash., journalist Sherry Jones toiled weekends on a racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet Muhammad. Ms. Jones learned Arabic, studied scholarly works about Aisha's life, and came to admire her protagonist as a woman of courage. When Random House bought her novel last year in a $100,000, two-book deal, she was ecstatic. This past spring, she began plans for an eight-city book tour after the Aug. 12 publication date of "The Jewel of Medina" -- a tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet's harem.

It's not going to happen: In May, Random House abruptly called off publication of the book. The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.

Random House feared the book would become a new "Satanic Verses," the Salman Rushdie novel of 1988 that led to death threats, riots and the murder of the book's Japanese translator, among other horrors. In an interview about Ms. Jones's novel, Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it "disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now." He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received "from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only 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."

Though Aisha, who was married at age nine, was Muhammad's favorite wife, very little has been written about her. Nomani writes that the saga upsets her as a Muslim. (She is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, among other books.) She interviews Jones, who is devastated by what is happening to her novel. She also finds out exactly who the instigated the book's demise -- and it's somewhat surprising. Random House sent out galleys of the book to writers and professors in the hope of getting favorable blurbs for marketing. One of the recipients was an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on Aisha named Denise Spellberg. Jones had read one of Spellberg's books for research. Instead of an endorsement, she sent out warnings to Muslims about the book:

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life." Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "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."

Spellberg also called editors at Random House, where she is also under contract, warning them against publishing the novel and predicting widespread violence, including against the publishing house's staff and building. They postponed publication indefinitely for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

My favorite op-eds are the ones that rely heavily on reporting, as this one does. Nomani wrote more on the topic at On Faith, as did Jones. It struck me that self-censorship of this type in a free country should be huge news and I wondered how the mainstream media would respond. It's one story if countries with freedom of speech and of the press publish material that could be deemed sensitive to some Muslims -- and some Muslims threaten or enact violence. It's an entirely different story when people and publishers decide just to censor themselves preemptively in response to threats. So how has this story been covered?

The Austin American-Statesman published a big piece about Spellberg because of the local connection. It is almost entirely from and about her perspective, but it's illuminating none-the-less. (Publishers Weekly ran an abridged version of the story and Jeffrey Weiss at the Dallas Morning News has been keeping tabs on the story.)

Aishah2Here is her defense explaining why she tried to keep the book from being published:

"Not just because of its potential to provoke violence," said Spellberg, who worried that a small minority of Muslims might respond violently to the book. "But also because, as a historian, I objected to the fact that it was a deliberately distorted view of an important female religious figure."

Spellberg also had her lawyer send a letter to Random House saying that she would sue the company if her name was used to promote the book.

"My fear was that the author would invoke my name or scholarly work as her explanation for the historical sources she claimed underpinned her novel," Spellberg said. "I wanted to protect my professional reputation -- and my safety."

It's that last bit that I wish were further explored by the mainstream media. The Independent ran both a straightforward news account and an opinion column.

MediaBistro had a good analysis of the varying sides, The Canadian Press spoke with Salman Rushdie for his perspective and The Guardian dealt with the issue of cowardice head on, using the hook of comments made by Rushdie's lawyer during the publication of The Satanic Verses:

Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose latest book The Tyrannicide Brief is published by Random House US and who was under terrorist threat whilst acting for Rushdie, said: "We can't be overcritical of American publishers for cowering under terrorist threats. After all, the Guardian, like every other British newspaper, lacked the gumption to publish the Danish cartoons. But all who care about free speech have a duty to make this sort of censorship counterproductive. Random House should pay this author substantial compensation, and the book should be placed on a website so everyone can read it."

I'm glad that the British press is engaged in a discussion of these major issues. How publishing institutes will respond to threats of Muslim violence needs a wider airing. I wish the American press would also engage in that discussion.

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