Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Jewel of Medina: Free speech or deliberate controversy?

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I've been aware of the impending publication of Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, a romantic novel based on the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha, for some time, and never really knew what to make of it.

The US publication was cancelled by Random House, who were advised that "the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community" and "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment", but it was picked up by Gibson Square, a small, independent UK publishers owned by Martin Rynja. Then, just this weekend, Rynja's home in Islington was firebombed in what is believed to have been an attempt by Islamic extremists to kill him because of his plans to publish the novel. (This happened 20 years to the day since the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, although this appears to be a coincidence).

Rynja has long been a defender of works others have tried to censored, having published such recent works as OJ Simpson's If I Did It and Alexander Litvinenko's Blowing Up Russia, and this seems to have been his motivation behind publishing Jewel of Medina, as he explained earlier this year:
"In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear. As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate."
Rynja has been widely applauded for his stance, not least by Jo Glanville on Comment is Free:
"Rynja's support for free speech is proving to be exceptional, as is his courage in standing up to bullies, at a time when other publishers will surrender at any intimation of legal action - particularly from litigious Saudis. Rynja, who trained as a lawyer, has shown that capitulation need not be inevitable. I can only hope that the shocking attack on his office will not dim his determination - but he will need support."
It's hard to disagree, but one of my first thoughts with controversies like this is always "But is the book/film/cartoon actually any good?" This was my problem with Geert Wilders' anti-Islam short film Fitna - Wilders had set out purely to court controversy, and in the process produced something of next to no intellectual value. In short, it was rubbish. Controversy for the sake of controversy.

So what about Jewel of Medina? Obviously it hasn't been released so very few people have read it, but Random House's decision to drop it was influenced by the words of Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, who after reading a proof wrote to the publishers, calling the book a "very ugly, stupid piece of work", adding "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."

Which makes you think - if you're going to enter such sensitive territory, or as Spellberg put it "play with a sacred history", isn't there a more sensible way of doing it than publishing what, if you take Spellberg's word for it, sounds like it might be a trashy romance? (Though Jones has disputed everything Spellberg said and demanded an apology.) But then I read New Humanist contributor Kenan Malik in The Times, who looks at this controversy in light of that over The Satanic Verses 20 years ago:
"What the differing responses to the two novels reveal is how Rushdie's critics lost the battle but won the war. They never prevented the publication of his novel. But the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case - that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures - is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised. ... There will always be extremists who respond with fire. There is little we can do about them. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it morally unacceptable to give offence."
And it was Malik's final paragraph that really helped make up my mind:
"It is everybody's business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if it is deemed by some to be offensive. In a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held clashes are unavoidable and these should be dealt with openly rather than suppressed. Important because any kind of social progress requires one to offend some deeply held sensibilities. 'If liberty means anything,” as George Orwell put it, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear'."
So after much consdieration, here's what I think. Whether or not a book is good enough for publication is an editorial issue for the publishers. Once they have made that decision, they have the right to go ahead and publish it. If any groups then try and censor it on the grounds of offence, in this case with threats or acts of violence, then the argument is no longer about the quality of the book, but rather about free speech. In light of this weekend's events at the home of Martin Rynja, it is in all our interests that Jewel of Medina does not fall victim to would-be censors.