Speak Boldly

This weekend, I came across an outstanding editorial by the British journalist Johann Hari, “We should never pulp books out of fear of fanatics“. It opens by describing “the story of a novel you cannot read”:

The Jewel of Medina was written by a journalist called Sherry Jones. It recounts the life of Aisha, a girl who really was married off at the age of six to a 50-year-old man called Mohammed ibn Abdallah. On her wedding day, Aisha was playing on a see-saw outside her home. Inside, she was being betrothed. The first she knew of it was when she was banned from playing out in the street with the other children. When she was nine, she was taken to live with her now 53-year-old husband. He had sex with her there and then.

…You cannot read this story today – except in the Koran and the Hadith. The man Mohammed ibn Abdallah became known to Muslims as “the Prophet Mohammed”…

As Hari explains, this book no longer exists. Random House bought the rights, planned the book tour, and was about to release it to the public. But at the last possible minute, they had a panic attack over the possibility of a violent backlash by Islamic radicals. The book’s launch date, which had been set for last week, was scrapped, and they destroyed all the copies they had already printed.

This decision, according to Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal, was due mainly to a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin named Denise Spielberg. Spielberg, who was sent an advance copy, found the novel’s frank sexual scenes of Mohammed “incredibly offensive” and sent out a blistering e-mail to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students. She also contacted Random House to tell them they were putting themselves in danger by publishing it. Right on cue, veiled threats against the publisher and the author began to spring up on Islamic websites. Random House soon caved in and announced that they would:

…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.”

Sadly, the forces of political correctness and theocratic violence have once again conspired to undermine free speech. The bloodthirsty fanatics of the Islamic world think they can shut down any dissenting opinion through violence; meanwhile, the easily cowed intellectuals of the West think the proper response is to appease these fanatics and censor ourselves so as not to offend them.

People who say things like this, no matter what protests they make about tolerance and multiculturalism, are not the advocates but the enemies of Western society’s values. Yes, we stand for tolerance; which means that in a free society, all opinions may be voiced, and no one may shut down the free flow of dialogue by making threats or complaining that they are offended. And yes, we stand for multiculturalism; which means that all cultures have the right to participate in society together, to take part in that conversation and join the flow of ideas. Multiculturalism does not mean that the different groups in society should be split apart into balkanized sects, each one living behind their own hedge of laws to protect them from ever coming in contact with beliefs and values different from theirs.

Contrary to Prof. Spielberg, if the expression of an idea is likely to provoke violence, that is an urgent and vital reason why that idea should be expressed, not a reason why it should be silenced. To say otherwise is to admit that the fanatics control the debate – that they can stifle any opinion they dislike through the threat of violence – and to concede this is to lay down one’s arms and surrender to tyranny.

Western society stands for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We have the right to say what we believe, even if it offends others, especially if it offends others – because the only way we progress is by confronting entrenched evils. To meekly tiptoe around established prejudices, letting the violently irrational control the terms of debate, will bring down all of society to their lowest common denominator and leave us mired in darkness and stagnation.

And it’s not just Westerners who are harmed by this. As Asra Nomani writes, Islamic society itself has a heritage of beautiful art and literature. That tradition, no less than Western free expression, has been targeted by the violent radicals. They would erase everything, not just from other cultures but from their own as well, that does not conform to their rigid and narrow-minded faith. Out of a foolish desire to safeguard multiculturalism, the defenders of political correctness would end up ultimately negating their own goal. Johann Hari sums it up well:

Insulating a religion from criticism – surrounding it with an electric wire-fence called “respect” – keeps it stunted at its most infantile and fundamentalist stage.

…Muslims are secure enough to deal with some tough questions. It is condescending to treat Muslims like excitable children who cannot cope with the probing, mocking treatment we hand out to Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It is perfectly consistent to protect Muslims from bigotry while challenging the bigotries and absurdities within their holy texts.

…[C]onsistent atheism is not racism. On the contrary: it treats all people, irrespective of skin colour, as mature adults who can cope with rational questions. When we pulp books out of fear of fundamentalism, we are decapitating the most precious freedom we have.

With all that said, I have to concede that I can’t entirely blame Random House. Large, established organs of journalism do, in fact, have employees throughout the world who might be at risk. This doesn’t mean that speaking out against the instigators of violence and theocracy is not vital or necessary. It just means that, as always in human history, the establishment powers that have the most to lose are unlikely to be the ones to do it. We will always need Voltaires, Thomas Paines and other independent minds who are willing to speak boldly and take on the forces of ignorance. If we make our case well, in due time the rest of society will follow.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • TJ

    With all that said, I have to concede that I can’t entirely blame Random House. Large, established organs of journalism do, in fact, have employees throughout the world who might be at risk.

    I’m glad you included this. There are certain risks that mainstream businesses (and their employees) can not be expected to take. Random House should sell (for maybe $1) the rights to publish this book to some smaller, more risk-taking publisher whose employees, from the top executives on down, are more comfortable with that risk (and also don’t have employees in riskier parts of the world).

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Coincidentally, the subject of our last podcast was on this. Another Goddamned Podcast.

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    I can fully blame Random House. No problem, as did we all on AGP. Like it or not, as a major facilitator of free speech and a free press, a publisher also carries the responsibility to defend free speech and a free press. You can’t simply shrink away from that because some yahoos online start saber rattling. Anyone involved in publishing should not only recognize this but should not even hesitate to defend these principle freedoms. The cowardice excuse of concern for employees is confused, mistaken and ultimately disastrous. If anyone in that company is not willing to ever take risks to champion the freedoms they benefit so greatly from, then perhaps they should look into some other line of work like accounting.

    Spellberg’s (not Spielberg) role in this should not be overlooked. She fomented Muslim anger to influence Random House. I guess she knew from experience that Random House was a bunch of pussies and that this would work. This nugget is conveniently left out of the MSM coverage except for right wingnut media outlets and blogs.

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s not just threats of violence that have this effect. The idiotic “harmony at any cost” attitude that infests our society’s concepts of “politeness” and which topics are appropriate for discussion in social settings also invariably ends up allowing the least reasonable member of a group to hold the entire discussion hostage, a point I have tried to make dozens of times to members of a forum I frequent who are seriously considering prohibiting political and religious discussion.

  • freeindallas

    SPanish Inquisitor/ I just listen to the Podcast on Random House and really enjoyed it. Thanks for the link.

  • http://nomorehornets.blogspot.com The Exterminator

    While I agree with much of your essay, your namby-pamby conclusion is repugnant. If we as a society don’t insist that our bastions of free speech — publishers — absolutely refuse to succumb to threats of violence from religious zealots, then we’d all better start stocking up on our Qur’ans. Because we’ll need them.

  • bestonnet

    If Random House wasn’t prepared for the possible reaction of the fundies (and they should have figure out all along that what happened may happen) then they shouldn’t have agreed to publish the book.

  • Christopher

    This is why we need an armed society – when everyone is packing firepower it’s difficult for the threats of a few yahoos to have any impact, as the threatened party would have the ability to destroy the yahoos should they act on those threats.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Bestonnet beat me to it, but I’ll say it anyway: My reaction to Random House on this is a mixture of “what cowards they are for not going through with this” and “what idiots they were for not having thought of this in the first place.” Did it really not occur to them when greenlighting this book that this might be an issue? Did it really take a scholar of Islamic history to tell them that this might be a problem?

    They should have been prepared for this from Day 1. They should have had a game plan for dealing with the inevitable backlash. And if they didn’t want to deal with the backlash, they shouldn’t have agreed to publish it in the first place.

  • heliobates

    …when everyone is packing firepower it’s difficult for the threats of a few yahoos to have any impact, as the threatened party would have the ability to destroy the yahoos should they act on those threats.

    The best you can say about an armed society is that it raises the opportunity costs for some kinds of violence. Your enemies will then switch to a “lower-cost” form of violence. We’re not hypothetically discussing criminals who have some profit motive and an interest in self-preservation; we’re talking about hypothetical believers willing to kill and die to silence you. Worse, they’re also willing to kill people that you love, along with complete strangers, in order to eliminate you as a threat to their system of beliefs.

    If a hypothetical “terrorist group” wanted you dead, Christopher, and had even minimal resources to bring this about, the fact that you carry a weapon would not be a deterrent, just one more factor to consider during planning.

    How, specifically, does your Glock protect you against their radio-detonated car bomb?

  • http://nomorehornets.blogspot.com The Exterminator

    In answer to both Bestonnet & Greta:
    The Jewel of Medina is not a serious treatment of Islam. It’s a fucking historical romance novel scheduled for publication by, I think, Ballantine (a subsidiary of Random House that deals in “genre” books). My guess — and it’s only a guess, but one I’m comfortable making in light of my knowledge of the publishing world — is that the editors who signed Sherry Jones were not even aware that a book on their list could conceivably be a target of Islamic fundamentalists. It was short-sighted of them, but the fact is that they probably didn’t even dream about the religious implications.

  • Alex Weaver

    How, specifically, does your Glock protect you against their radio-detonated car bomb?

    It doesn’t. So far as I can tell, keeping and bearing arms in civil life is a means for certain kinds of people to assuage deep and overwhelming emotional insecurities, not a rational response to any threat faced by our present society.

  • Steve bowen

    It’s interesting that most of the apologetics posting <a href= “http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-we-need-to-stop-being-such-cowards-about-islam-894361.html?startindex=400″ to the original editorial, either dispute the “facts” about Ayesha’s age at consummation or are disparaging about the books literary credentials. The point is, regardless of whether the book is inaccurate, trash romantic fiction or “soft porn” (as one commenter has it), if Random House thought it worth publishing; they should have.
    It may be that on consideration they did not believe the novel had enough literary merit to warrant the risk to their employees and Sherry Jones is (I suspect) no Salman Rushdie, so if they had pulled the book quietly and voluntarily on this basis I might have had some sympathy. But, since they asked Spellberg for an opinion and then bowed to pressure that was in the public domain they should have “published and be damned”.

  • Steve bowen

    whhops, my html went awol on that one:)

  • http://chromiumoxidegreen.blogspot.com Maria

    Contrary to Prof. Spielberg, if the expression of an idea is likely to provoke violence, that is an urgent and vital reason why that idea should be expressed, not a reason why it should be silenced. To say otherwise is to admit that the fanatics control the debate – that they can stifle any opinion they dislike through the threat of violence – and to concede this is to lay down one’s arms and surrender to tyranny.

    Well said, Ebon.

    I, personally, find it striking that it’s an historical romance novel that’s provoking all this–that a book that’s romanticising the relationship between a nine year old Aisha, and Mohammed, that we’re comparing to the writings of Voltaire and Paine. It’s probably written in the kindest possible light, and for that, it’s publication was stopped. What hope is there, then, for a less flattering treatment of the history of Islam?

  • Steve bowen

    This was the link I meant to post.

  • http://kdegraaf.net/blog/ Kevin DeGraaf

    So far as I can tell, keeping and bearing arms in civil life is a means for certain kinds of people to assuage deep and overwhelming emotional insecurities, not a rational response to any threat faced by our present society.

    That’s quite the stereotype. Would you happen to have any evidence demonstrating that law-abiding firearms owners must have such insecurities?

    “heliobates” is correct to point out that concealed carry is useless against car-bombing and other such indirect methods of attack, but you (Alex) went far beyond that to decry defensive weapons use entirely (including a potent dose of ad hominem for good measure).

    Are you prepared to back up the assertion that, facing an assailant who is armed with a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, or even just muscular strength and who is intent on committing murder, rape, and/or the infliction of serious bodily injury, it is irrational for innocent parties to have available a reliable method available to deter said attacker?

    I’m no “gun nut” (although I suspect you would disagree). I fully support reasonable efforts to block the sale of firearms to those who are morally deficient and/or mentally unstable, and to dramatically strengthen the training, skill, and background check requirements for concealed carry permits. However, I cannot comprehend the reasoning of the ultra-dogmatic anti-gun position.

    Criminal defense aside, suppose the government’s recent headlong plunge into tyranny continues unabated. Would this not constitute an ever-growing threat toward rational, liberal society? Are you so steeped in anti-firearm sentiment that you would deny everyone the means to throw off another repressive government, should that become necessary? (If you contend that small arms are insufficient to resist a modern superpower army, please direct your attention to Iraq.)

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com The Barefoot Bum

    According to Wikipedia, Random House has released the rights to the book to Ms. Jones, the author:

    The author and Ballantine subsequently agreed to terminate the agreement, with the understanding that the author would be free to publish elsewhere, if she so chose. [Random House, The Jewel of Medina Statement]

  • Entomologista

    Personal firearms stopped being a useful tool to check government power a long time ago. If our government ever gets shitty enough to warrant revolution, you better just hope the army doesn’t feel like firing on their fellow citizens. I haven’t got any problem with hunting or recreational shooting or gun ownership. I just think it’s stupid to argue that some middle-aged fat dudes who like to play soldier are going to defend us from the United States Army with their pistols. In any case, this is totally OT now.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    I understand the author still owns the rights to the book. I really hope she’s able to get it published elsewhere. If she can, I’ll certainly pick up a copy.

  • bestonnet

    Christopher:

    This is why we need an armed society – when everyone is packing firepower it’s difficult for the threats of a few yahoos to have any impact, as the threatened party would have the ability to destroy the yahoos should they act on those threats.

    Which is basically giving them the ability to do a lot more damage (not to mention that only a minority will actually fight them, the rest will just lay down their arms and let the extremists win).

    Better to just keep machine guns out of their hands.

    Kevin DeGraaf:

    Are you prepared to back up the assertion that, facing an assailant who is armed with a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, or even just muscular strength and who is intent on committing murder, rape, and/or the infliction of serious bodily injury, it is irrational for innocent parties to have available a reliable method available to deter said attacker?

    Self-defence is a right and you can use whatever you have for self-defence (subject to the whole reasonable force issue), the main question is whether making certain implements used for self-defence available would increase or decrease the total risk from crime.

    If the evidence is that More Guns means More Crime (which seems to be the case) then gun control becomes very easy to justify.

    Entomologista is right about guns being almost useless against an oppressive government, especially one that is willing to kill you (the US military in Iraq is actually trying not to kill too many innocent people) and also right about it only being tangentially related (in that easier availability of guns would make it easier for extremists to take over since the option of submitting to them is much easier than fighting them).

  • Polly

    This is turning into a gun-control debate.

    Not all books or ideas are worth dying over (giving the threats more credibility than they probably deserve). And different people are willing to scrifice for different things. Risking the lives of employees of a publishing house can be construed as irresponsible.

    Is Random House going to put out an alert to all its empoyees and other potential targets warning them that they’d better quit now if they don’t have the BALLS to be the victims of jihad?

    TJ summed it up best.

  • terrence

    Help! My carrer has hit the skids and I’m considering a change. I hear, in the right urban environments, armed robbery can be very lucrative. I can relocate pretty much to any of the 50 states, already have my weapons obtained illegally, and I need to make a rational decision here — should I ply my new trade in states that have strict gun control laws, or should I launch the enterprise in locations that allow concealed carry?

  • terrence

    that’s “career”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Let’s not make this a debate about gun control, please.

  • Alex Weaver

    Kevin, none of what you posted has any coherent relationship to either my actual position or my statements. Observing that the comments of Christopher here and in other threads, and of most others I’ve encountered who share his views, appear to reflect an intense emotional “need” to possess weapons in general and firearms in particular which is entirely divorced from the level of actual risk of the person in question facing any of the scenarios you describe, but which may be highly relevant to the level of threat posed to other citizens in connection with the gratification of said “need,” and is not even an anti-gun position, let alone “ultra-dogmatic.”

    As for the author, if I was her, I’d publish it for free online to maximize exposure. It seems unlikely that she’ll be getting a lot of money for it anyway, and the stand so doing would make is arguably more valuable and less fleeting.

  • http://kdegraaf.net/blog/ Kevin DeGraaf

    I will gladly heed your request to discontinue the off-topic discussion in this forum. If anyone is interested in reading my rebuttal or otherwise continuing the firearms discussion, feel free to meet me here.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Let me respond to some earlier criticism:

    Like it or not, as a major facilitator of free speech and a free press, a publisher also carries the responsibility to defend free speech and a free press.

    I would like very much to be able to agree with you, PhillyChief, but I don’t. Random House does not have the responsibility to do that.

    In an ideal world, yes, every publishing house would be a fearless champion of free speech, publishing messages that society needs to hear and damn the torpedoes. But that isn’t why these companies exist. They’re businesses; they exist to make money. If they calculate that the risk they take on exceeds the likely potential profit they’ll make from publishing a book, then they’re not going to publish that book. I’m not saying I endorse this reasoning, but I am saying we have to recognize that their perspective is necessarily going to be different from ours, and the philosophical reasons we find so persuasive aren’t going to mean much to them. I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s the way it is.

    And there’s something else that gives me pause: if Random House did publish this book, and if some violent lunatics attacked the company’s holdings, the people who would bear the brunt of that harm would not be the ones who greenlighted the book’s publication. I’m all in favor of people voluntarily stepping up to defend the right of free speech, even if it puts them in harm’s way. I’m not as sanguine about people making that decision on behalf of others. Random House’s employees are not soldiers in a war, and I doubt the company’s executives share your rather cavalier attitude toward their safety. Again, I’m not saying I support their decision, but I am saying that I understand why they chose to make it.

    All that said, there is one thing Random House could have done, but didn’t do, which I would have condemned as loudly as anyone if they had. Namely, they didn’t hold on to the rights of the book; they released the author to seek publication elsewhere. That, at least, was a good decision. The action they actually took can be characterized as declining to enter into this controversy. If they had withheld the rights and prevented the book from being published anywhere else, that would have been actively taking the terrorists’ side.

    I’m not by any means saying this book shouldn’t be published. On the contrary, I hope it is. I want to give the violent, easily offended fundamentalists a kick whenever possible; I want to see their dogmas ruthlessly disrespected and their hair-trigger sensibilities trampled upon at every turn. I want to deluge them with so much insult and outrage that they’ll have no single target to vent their bloodthirsty urges against. I’d love nothing better than to see a million modern-day Voltaires skewering them as they deserve. All I’m saying is that, realistically, we can’t expect the powers that be to do that for us; we’re going to have to do it ourselves. Revolutions are never brought about by the people who have the most to lose.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Wait- so it is okay for them to free ride? Given that they benefit directly from a free press they should actively promote it- to do otherwise is to dump the responsibility on others and reap the benefits themselves.

  • DamienSansBlog

    I didn’t know 7th-century Arabia had see-saws…

    Frankly, I’m not even sure what Professor Spellberg finds offensive here. The Hadith baldly state that the Prophet Formerly Known as Mahomet married people who we now consider small children. Are Spellberg et al objecting to depicting him in a fictional work, or to the language used, or to historical inaccuracies in other topics, or to what?

  • Alex Weaver

    I wouldn’t say Random House has a responsibility to take risks to uphold free speech in the sense of a legal or quasi-legal obligation, but it is appropriate that they lose face to the extent that they backed down under threat.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    DamienSansBlog: In my understanding, the novel has explicit sex scenes between Mohammed and his wives.

  • heliobates

    I didn’t mean to spark an argument about gun control but to point out that the answer to this problem seems to be exactly the kind of thing that Christopher finds abhorrent.

    Never mind car bombs, personal weapons are no defence against the culture of intimidation created by those who try to silence critics of religion. To suggest that a firearm somehow grants immunity to the single individual possessing it seems hopelessly naieve.

    Instead, the antidote to the oppressive “electric wire fence of respect” is, as Adam suggested, collective action: as a society we must use and preserve the right to speak freely about and criticize any system of beliefs.

  • Polly

    Wait- so it is okay for them to free ride?

    I bet many of us wouldn’t be cops due to the risks to life and limb, yet we all enjoy a (more-or-less safe) society. Does that mean we’re getting a free ride? We all enjoy protections that we don’t personally have to risk injury/death for. What’s your point?

  • Joffan

    DamienSansBlog:

    Frankly, I’m not even sure what Professor Spellberg finds offensive here. The Hadith baldly state that the Prophet Formerly Known as Mahomet married people who we now consider small children. Are Spellberg et al objecting to depicting him in a fictional work, or to the language used, or to historical inaccuracies in other topics, or to what?

    Ebonmuse:

    In my understanding, the novel has explicit sex scenes between Mohammed and his wives.

    Well, perhaps the objection is to the talk of sex in direct terms. But more likely the underlying reason, the reaction, is to the idea that someone actually used the Hadith as a literary source; that is, reading them rather than just venerating them. Any other motivation may arise from that initial reaction.

    It doesn’t really sound like my kind of book… but I’d be tempted to buy just as a reaction to the Islamist reaction.

  • Brad

    It’s a cultural premise in the West that sex with little children is disgusting and contemptable. The book capitalizes on this understanding and makes Islam look bad, which angered Mr. Spellberg. He says it “made fun of muslims and their history.” The real reason for reaction is a persecution complex and and a strong criticism-suppression reflex. The problem isn’t Islamophobia, it’s anti-Islam -ophobia.

    I realize that it’s narrow-minded to criticize from an armchair with nothing to lose, but I still am disappointed in Random House’s deference from defending free speech. But as long as this book gets published one way or another, I’ll be happy.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Once again, gun control is not the topic of this post. If enough people want to follow up that discussion, I’ll create an open thread for it.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Thanks, Ebon and Joffan. Brad, please take note that Prof. Spellberg is a lady, not a gentleman.

  • Christopher

    Ebonmuse,

    The topic I was refering to was not merely gun control (although that’s one component), but rather a complete shift in our culture’s mentality regarding security – a shift in thought that I believe would render fanatics such as those mentioned in your original post completely powerless to blackmail anyone into submission again. As things are now, our social order provides havens for these bastards and this paradigm shift would eliminate most (if not all) of those havens.

    Until we overcome the weaknesses our culture inherited from a 100+ year history of relative isolation from the dangers brewing outside our borders this will continue to be a problem – a problem I believe the aforementioned cultural paradigm shift would fix.

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com The Barefoot Bum

    This is a very easy issue to solve. Random House doesn’t want the book. They’ve given the rights back to the author. If she wants to publish it, there are any number of venues available to her.

    I’ve already written to her telling her I would invest serious (to me at least) money in having the book published. Given the controversy over the book, I think even a small business could make a great deal of money by publishing it.

    If she doesn’t want to publish it, for whatever reason or no reason at all, that’s her choice.

  • volare

    Creative Commons ebook. Job done.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this update:

    In September, Gibson Square, a British publishing company, announced that they would publish The Jewel of Medina. Shortly thereafter, the publisher’s home was the target of an attempted arson. Three men have been arrested and charged, with a hearing scheduled for later this month. I especially liked this statement from Martin Rynja, Gibson Square’s owner, who’s shown no indications of backing down:

    “In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear,” he said. “As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate.”

    Bravo, sir! I, for one, hope this book is published as widely and successfully as possible. The only way to defeat fanatics like the alleged arsonists is to show them that their actions only lead to greater publicity for the message they hope to stifle through violence.

  • Brad

    Duly noted, DamienSansBlog. That was an embarrassing slip.

  • Joe Truth

    I’m appalled by this moron Spielberg for taking the sides of the fascists. Shame on her. Is there anyway we can let her know how we feel? If we don’t start fighting vociferously for free speech with as much passion as the Islamofascists then we are going to lose. Spielberg needs to feel some outrage. Any ideas out there?