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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  • Stephen A.

    The “censorship” angle is clearly a top one for journalists in this story, but it’s a lazy and predictable one (and one that the authors clearly WANT to be reported.)

    The NEED for some to offend, and to be deliberately provocative, is another angle that should be explored.

    What makes these authors and artists want to deliberately provoke religious people with unhistorical and pornographic portrayals of Mohammed or even Christ, as in the Last Temptation of Christ, Da Vinci Code and even in works of art?

    The lens and pen should be turned back on the creators to find out what deep psychological needs are being met by “sticking it” to religious people by offending God and God’s messengers as a kind of sport.

  • Jerry

    It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between generally accepted historical proof and unexamined beliefs.

    Though Aisha, who was married at age nine,

    That should not be stated as an incontrovertible fact. Her age at marriage is disputed by many. For example: http://www.muslim.org/islam/aisha-age.htm explores this issue You can read the arguments for yourself, but one conclusion is:

    Hence there is not the least doubt that Aisha was at least nine or ten years of age at the time of betrothal, and fourteen or fifteen years at the time of marriage.

    Another argument in that web page puts her marriage age even later.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stephen,

    I don’t think there is any evidence at all that this author sought to provoke anyone. By her own accounts, she was trying to be respectful.

  • Claude

    I was amazed at how little reporting was done by the Austin American-Statesman. They just gave a forum for Professor Spielberg to trash the book. The book may indeed be trashy, but I dislike people setting themselves up as censors. At least the other newspapers focus appropriately on the question of censorship.

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  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    NPR’s Talk of the Nation featured this book and a conversation with Asra Nomani this past Monday:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93503128

    Did Random House actually receive any threats, or only the threat of threats? Random House claims to have received warnings from unrelated sources, but Spellberg is the only one mentioned. Were there any others?

  • Dave

    After all, the Guardian, like every other British newspaper, lacked the gumption to publish the Danish cartoons.

    Since I regard the Danish cartoons as an act of editorial stupidity, not courage, I don’t see a lack of gumption in British newspapers declining to publish them.

  • Stephen A.

    Mollie, I think Random House disagrees with you. They believed it was unnecesarily provocative to go into (hypoethical/fictionalized) depictions of Mohammed in bed having sex with his bride, an (allegedly/unproven) 9-year-old. All very speculative and all obviously provocative.

    This is about 10X more provocative and incendiary, in fact, than suggesting that Jesus had second thoughts while on the Cross, or that he married Mary Magdalene, or that their descendents sat on the thrones of Europe for 1800 years. (OR that Jesus and Judas were gay lovers.) And those are all pretty provocative and offensive images and accusations to many Christians.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stephen,

    But there is no dispute that Mohammed WAS a married man who DID have sex with his wives. Christians profess that Jesus is the Son of God and perfectly kept the Law.

    There isn’t really a comparison here. And I’m unsure how it could be deemed more provocative or incendiary than alleging that Jesus and Judas were gay lovers. Mohammed himself said he was a mere mortal. There is no dispute that he had sex and descendants with his wives. And he is known to have consider Aisha his most beloved wife.

    And Random House accepted the book for publication and only stopped publication — by their own account — because of fear.

    I agree that there is a story about needless provocation. I’m just not sure that’s the story here. There are plenty of images and texts designed to provoke Muslims negatively. I just don’t think that there is any evidence that this piece of historical fiction, whatever else you might say about it, is one of them.

  • Mephista

    Random House ( hahaha ) can plead the fifth amendment, and not divulge its sources other than Spellberg, while trashing the first. SHE took it upon herself to circulate her opinion to those who were certain to spread it around to exactly the people who would freak out at such an account. Rent-a-mob tactics, if you ask me.

  • http://http:/www.InklingBooks.com Mike Perry

    This remark is more than a little revealing:

    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.”

    There’s little in her criticism of The Jewel of Medina that doesn’t qpply equally well to The Last Temptation. Why then did she react so differently to the two?

    My suspicion applies equally well to this professor and all those the media who championed “Piss Christ” and yet refused to publish the Muhammad cartoon. We live in an age when cowardice is the sin that “dare not speak its name.” In an earlier age, cowards were cowards and said so. (Shakespeare uses that as humor.) In our age, cowards often attempt to portray themselves as heroes. I believe I even used the term “heroic cowards” of them in a late-1990s article. For them, John Kerry, getting three purple hearts for scratches and scurrying stateside after four months was a war hero. In contrast, McCain, brutally tortured during over five years as a POW, isn’t.

    Going to see “The Last Temptation” illustrates heroic cowardice on a small scale. You can portray walking through that metal detector as a brave deed while knowing, in your heart of heart, that Christians aren’t going to kill you. That is not true of Muslims, hence the difference in the professor’s response. As a recognized expert on Aisha, radical Muslims would hold her accountable for how she reacted to the book.

    The same is true of all those in the press who hold Israelis to a different standard than Palestinians. Again, one readily resorts to violence the other doesn’t. Ditto all the thuggish states around the world and how news outlets such as CNN avoid criticizing them, preferring to save their moralizing for democracies.

    In short, genuine courage is the virtue most lacking in our age and it’s systematically being destroyed by a counterfeit. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, without courage, all the other virtues disappear under pressure. It takes courage to be honest. It takes courage to be kind. And it takes courage to speak the truth, even as historical fiction. Author Sherry Jones has genuine courage. Professor Denise Spellberg does not.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

  • Claude

    Re the level of provocation between the portrayal of Mohammed as a sexual being and Jesus as a sexual being and the question of double standards: in 1977, Denis Lemon, editor of Gay News, was found guilty of blasphemy for publishing a poem by James Kirkup that characterized Jesus as a homosexual (in a relationship with John the Beloved Disciple, not Judas). Lemon was fined and sentenced to six months in prison. So it is not as though Christians do not punish (or have not punished) those who provoke the orthodox. The Kirkup poem, by the way, was not disrespectful, and Kirkup is a well respected poet, but the very notion of Jesus as a homosexual roused Christian zealots to press the British government to charge a small newspaper with blasphemy. I suspect that the incident had more to do with homophobia than with any genuine sense of outrage, but it is useful to remember that Muslims are not the only ones who attempt to stifle alternative portrayals of their religious figures.

  • http://teresawymore.wordpress.com Teresa Wymore

    We live in an age when cowardice is the sin that “dare not speak its name.”

    Nice point, Mike. It’s censorship when somebody else does it to you, but when you do it to yourself it’s cowardice. Now, free and intelligent men and women are doing the work of violent oppressors to themselves. Look how much trouble we’re saving all those radicals. Terrorism has won.

  • Brian L

    I agree with Mike Perry (#11) in regards to the most revealing quote. That would have been a great spot to push for more information. What is the difference between Christian “sacred history” and Muslim “sacred history” in her opinion. Why should “deliberate misinterpretation” of one be tolerated and the other condemned under the threat of violence?

    Further, especially considering the facts of history per Mollie #9, what is scholar Spellberg’s understanding of the relationship between History and “sacred history.” I suffer every time PBS runs a “what really happened” documentary about Jesus, Paul, early church (or whatever) without considering the NT as “reliable historical evidence.” What privileges Spellberg’s special area of religious research?

  • Julia

    I think Stephen A is onto something I hadn’t thought about.

    I don’t want to read a book detailing what LBJ and LadyBird did in bed. Or the details of what was going through the minds of Martin Luther and his wife while having marital sex. I would find such books upsetting and beyond the respect owed to historical figures. Similarly, it’s one thing to report on John Edwards’ affair and quite another to describe all the intimate details. This repugnance is even more pronounced when dealing with religious figures.

    BTW I don’t think people were all that upset at The Last Temptation for proposing that Jesus married Mary Magdalen, it’s the portrayal of intimate details that is offensive. And the DaVinci Code was not offensive for saying Jesus married Mary Magdalen, it was the slanderous fake history that ran through it that disturbed Catholics. I don’t know about those of other religions.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    This shouldn’t be a discussion about what we choose to read. This should be a discussion about media coverage of religion and free speech/press issues.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Julia — Of course, if you don’t want details of what Martin Luther and Katerina von Bora did in bed, don’t read his collected letters (which would put a fictional description of their intimacy on a whole ‘nother basis).

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    And the same people in the media spouting their cowardice in the face of potential problems from Islamic radicals here will inevitably be the same voices viciously attacking and insulting Christians when they complain about even worse garbage directed against Christians or the Christian Faith. Talk about a corrupt double standard.

  • Jerry

    Perhaps a coda to this topic… I went to google and found a Snopes report on the youngest woman to have a baby:

    Claim: The youngest mother on record was a five-year-old Peruvian girl.
    Status: True

    For those not familiar with Snopes, it’s my favorite web site for checking urban legends.

  • http://dallasnews.com/religionblog Jefffrey Weiss

    “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.”

    I wonder: Did she happen to weigh in on the Da Vinci Code?

  • Dave

    Mike Perry wrote:

    Ditto all the thuggish states around the world and how news outlets such as CNN avoid criticizing them, preferring to save their moralizing for democracies.

    When you criticize democracies there’s an outside chance of affecting their behavior. The real conservative gripe on the young John Kerry was that he criticized his government effectively in his Winter Soldier testimony.

  • http://statesman.com/sacred Eileen

    Claude,

    Actually, as the religion writer, I did report on this for the Austin American-Statesman in my faith blog — days before our book editor hired a freelancer to write that page one story, which I agree left something to be desired.

  • Dave2

    Dave wrote:

    Since I regard the Danish cartoons as an act of editorial stupidity, not courage, I don’t see a lack of gumption in British newspapers declining to publish them.

    Surely we shouldn’t elide the difference between (i) the initial publication of the cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and (ii) the reprinting of the cartoons by newspapers around the world as a response to violent protests, murder bounties, and arson throughout the Muslim world.

  • Dave

    Dave2, certainly the response to the cartoons became a story. That creates a dilemma for the editor. Reprinting the cartoons gives the reader more complete information as to what triggered the reaction, but it’s also putting kerosene on a fire. I have to respect either choice; mine would be to refrain from administering kerosene.

  • Becky

    A really great book that I think that everyone needs to read is Some Kind of Angel. It is about twenty-first century terrorism and the ingenious weapons terrorists use. However, the credible villain, is someone with noble values whom we pity; not your everyday outlaw. It is an awesome read!

  • tjproudamerican

    I have never heard of this website and judging by the comments here, this is a good place to find those readers who want to enshrine censorship.

    Stephen A. is hilarious! As Kent Bronfman says on the Simpson’s “Stephen A. for one welcomes our new masters!”

    Why do you all spend so much time defending behaiour you would condemn in a secular mob?