Written by David J. Rusin
Wed, 13 Aug 2008
by David J. Rusin
Yesterday should have been a proud moment for Sherry Jones - the day that The Jewel of Medina, her historical novel centered on Mohammed's young wife Aisha, was due to be released by Random House. But that did not happen. Random House dropped the novel in May over concerns that the dramatization of life in the prophet's harem could spark violence:
In an interview about Ms. Jones' 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."
Professor Denise Spellberg of the University of Texas helped dissuade Random House from going ahead. An editor who had spoken with her wrote in an email that "[Spellberg] thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence. Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue.'" The company soon dumped the book, citing "the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers, and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."
Sherry Jones may be crushed personally, but she recognizes the big picture:
I was also chagrined to realize the far-reaching ramifications of this historic decision to quash a work of art before it could even reach the public eye. Is Random House no longer publishing books about Islam? How does this bode for the future of publishing? What will be banned next? Art? Music? Theater? Dance?
Actually, many performances have been cancelled and many pieces of art have been withdrawn over fears of a violent backlash by radical Muslims. Examples include a Dutch museum pulling photographs that depict Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali as gay men and a London gallery removing erotic works in deference to its Muslim neighbors. Potter Grayson Perry, who has no qualms about insulting other faiths, has even admitted to censoring himself with regard to Islam.
Nor is Jones' book the first to be scrapped in this manner. Looseleaf was set to publish Nancy Kobrin's The Sheikh's New Clothes, which explores the foundations of suicide terrorism, but killed it in 2006, apparently for security reasons. Like The Jewel of Medina and many of the aforementioned cases, Kobrin's book was pulled without any specific threats being received.
Author Andrew Klavan takes a grim view of these developments. "Publishers ... are among the chief protectors and exercisers of our free discourse," he explains. "When they bow to bullying gangsters - whether those gangsters have some sort of religious motivation or not - they are ceding intellectual ground made sacred by the blood of patriots."