Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Dangerous "Jewel"

This year, September 28 - October 4 marks the annual observance of Banned Books Week, an event sponsored by the American Library Association, to promote awareness of issues surrounding censorship and intellectual freedom. It thus seems sadly appropriate that the controversy surrounding an American novel called The Jewel of Medina reached a new level when the office of its British publisher was firebombed early Saturday morning. The Jewel of Medina was recently published in this country by Beaufort Books after its original publisher, Random House, dropped the book for fear of inciting violence.

It all began last year when Random House signed author Sherry Jones to a two-book, $100,000 contract, the first book being The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Aisha, one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad. The scheduled publication date for this first book was this past August 18. As is common practice , Random House sent out pre-publication galleys to a number of individuals, looking for endorsements. At the recommendation of Jones, one of those galleys went to Denise Spellberg, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas.

From this point on, what happened is a matter of dispute and controversy. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Asra Nomani (herself a Muslim writer), Spellberg was appalled by what she read and called the editor of a Muslim website warning him of this "incredibly offensive" book that was about to be published by Random House. Soon, word of the book began to spread across the Internet, and it was being called "an attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam" by bloggers who, of course, hadn't actually read it. Spellberg also called Jane Garrett, a contact of hers at Random House, and warned her that publishing the novel could have serious repercussions.

In a letter to the Journal, Spellberg denied that she was solely responsible for Random House's subsequent actions, and claimed that she was just one of a number of experts who expressed their concerns to the publisher. She added: " I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard to its richness or resonance in the present."

Whatever the situation, Random House made the decision not to follow through on its contract to publish the book. In a public statement, the company said it had received "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....we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel." Random House returned the rights for the novel back to Sherry Jones, and it was published in the US earlier this month by Beaufort Books (the same company that ended up publishing the controversial O J Simpson book, If I Did It).

As might be expected, there was wide outrage at Random House's decision, though not everyone was equally convinced it was a dangerous precedent. Law professor Stanley Fish, who blogs for the New York Times, said it was more a matter of "judgment" than "censorship," pointing out that other publishers were free to publish the book if they chose to. However, Bill Poser, writing for the "Language Log" website, disagreed: "A free society cannot permit anyone, government, corporation, church, or individual, to decide what may or may not be published. That a publisher should cancel publication of a novel out of fear of violence by religious fanatics has everything to do with the Western tradition of free speech."

What happened to Gibson Square Publishing in England this past weekend seems to have raised the stakes. Three men were arrested for the firebombing on charges related to terrorism, and a hardline Islamic cleric said that, in his opinion further attacks could be expected since publishing the book could call for the death penalty under Sharia law. As of now, Beaufort Books in this country hasn't reported any threats, but has taken action to increase security.

Nobody is arguing that The Jewel of Medina is a book of tremendous literary value. In an early review, Publishers Weekly labeled it "not bad for a first novel...a page turner, but not outstanding." Still, the fact that one company decided not to publish the book, at least in part due to fear of attacks from extremists; and the fact that another publishing company has evidently experienced such attacks; should be of great concern to those interested in the freedom to read and the freedom to exchange ideas.

More about this controversy, with links to various documents, can be found here.

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