Censorship of book reveals lack of respect for Muslims


ANALYSIS: The decision not to publish a novel about one of Muhammad's wives is dubious and is offensive to Islam, writes Irshad Manji 

IN THE coming weeks, Americans will focus on who should lead the "land of the free and home of the brave". But does the United States still deserve to be described in the language of conscience and courage? It is increasingly questionable.

Random House, among the top publishers in New York, has cancelled plans to release The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about the prophet Muhammad's second and youngest wife, A'isha. Their reason? It might incite a violent backlash.

Might? That's all it takes these days? According to whom?

Welcome to where things get interesting. Long before controversy arose, Random House sent an endorsement request to Denise Spellberg, a non-Muslim professor at the University of Texas. She found parts of the manuscript offensive and decided that Muslims should feel the same.

Reportedly judging the book to be a "national security threat", she depicted it as "more dangerous than the Satanic Verses".

Prof Spellberg ought to know: She teaches Salman Rushdie's notorious novel in her class. Clearly, she doesn't back censorship.

Yet her lawyer warned Random House not to use Prof Spellberg's name in or on the novel.

Random House then consulted more "scholars of Islam".

In effect, the publisher invited post-colonial theorists with narrow specialisations to rip apart a mass-market story. The corporation's head of security was also pulled in.

Meanwhile, graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies learned of the still unpublished novel.

They heard about it through a Muslim website manager who claims to have received a "frantic" call from Prof Spellberg. His postings got forwarded to various forums, ultimately reaching a blogger who circulated a protest strategy.

There is no evidence that any one paid serious attention to the blogger's plan. Despite the resounding lack of threats, however, Random House announced that it would postpone publication of the novel for the sake of safety - including the safety of the author, Sherry Jones.

Mind you, she's free to seek a fatwa: Random House has now terminated Jones's contract, so she may sell the manuscript elsewhere.

"We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors," the publisher's corporate statement reads. That's one way to prove it.

How to begin unravelling the absurdity of this decision? For starters, Random House is in the business of free expression. Of course, so are newspapers and most of them did not print the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

But this novel cannot be compared to those cartoons. The Jewel of Medina treats both the prophet and his bride with deep affection. My own conversation with Jones affirms her respect for the dignity of A'isha.

"I wrote Jewel, in part, because I recognise the absence of women's voices in the way Islamic history is told," she explained by phone.

"Women played a huge leadership role in the founding of the faith. Silencing my voice only achieves more silencing of theirs."

Thus another absurdity. The muzzling of Sherry Jones originated with a woman. Moreover, Denise Spellberg is non-Muslim. Why are there no cries of interference, imperialism, even racism from those who typically tell non-Muslims to stay out of Islamic issues?

And a curious form of racism, the pulping of this book is. Random House New York has revealed what low expectations it has of Muslims.

Self-censorship reduces all believers to the status of children, incapable of handling sensitive material with civility. As a believer, I'm offended.

Muslims aren't infants. The man who took Prof Spellberg's call insists that she never wanted Jones gagged. Self-censorship does no favours to the Muslim community, he asserts, because "we're not going to silence our way out of problems".

In Serbia, where the novel is already out, some Muslims have indeed complained, prompting the publisher to apologise and to stop sales.

But a high-ranking Muslim cleric has defended the book's publication. Bosnian Muslims have also taken freedom's side, persuading testy muftis to remember the alternative : Slobodan Milosevic.

In the West, publishers aren't haunted by the legacy of Milosevic. What they fear are replays of Rushdie.

I experienced this first-hand when my own book, which advocates reform in Islam, landed on the desks of UK publishers. Some suggested that my name would be too exotic for multicultural Britain.

The honest ones mumbled Rushdie's name. About 40 rejections arrived before a small Scottish publisher stepped forward.

While some know the price of free expression, others know the value of it. My Canadian publisher even allows me to post free-of-charge translations on the internet for readers in the Islamic world, where the book is widely banned. So far, there have been more than 500,000 downloads - and no deaths.

In the end, Random House New York may have given Sherry Jones the gift of global exposure.

We shouldn't be surprised to see the Jewel of Medina distributed throughout Europe, as it deserves to be. I shall also be recommending her novel to my brave publisher back home. Its name: Random House Canada.

• Irshad Manji is a scholar with the European Foundation for Democracy and New York University and author of the Trouble with Islam Today: a Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change