Random House paid $100,000 for The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’ racy historical novel about Muhammad and his nine-year-old wife, Aisha, only to withdraw the book just days before its scheduled August 12 publication date. Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry explained that they decided to drop the book after receiving, “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.” They decided “to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”
This craven capitulation to violent intimidation came without any actual violent intimidation at all. Random House was smart enough to figure out, in these post-Salman Rushdie, post-Muhammad cartoons, post-Pope Rage days that publishing a book that Muslims find offensive could be hazardous to the health of a good many people.
It is curious that they let Jones work on The Jewel of Medina for six years only to remember Rushdie when her book was about to be published. That may be due to pressure from Denise A. Spellberg, an Associate Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When Spellberg received an advance copy of the book, she became “frantic” and contacted Shahed Amanullah, editor of the popular website altmuslim.com. “She was upset,” said Amanullah, because the book “made fun of Muslims and their history.” She later declared that The Jewel of Medina was a “very ugly, stupid piece of work…. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”
Spellberg denies charges that she was the “instigator” of Random House’s decision to deep-six Jones’ book. She says, “I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.” Yet Spellberg also maintains: “I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.”
Spellberg does seem to be right about The Jewel of Medina. The book rather improbably depicts the nine-year-old Aisha, at the moment of the consummation of her marriage to Muhammad, as finding “the bliss I had longed for all my life.” As evidenced by trash like this, the actual “richness and resonance in the present” of Muhammad’s marriage to the child Aisha is probably lost on both Spellberg and Jones. But due to Muhammad’s status in Islamic tradition as the supreme example of human conduct, child marriage is quite prevalent in some areas of the Islamic world today.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that over half of the girls in Afghanistan and Bangladesh are married before they reach the age of eighteen. In early 2002, researchers in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan found half the girls married by age thirteen. In an Afghan refugee camp, more than two out of three second-grade girls were either married or engaged, and virtually all the girls who were beyond second grade were already married. One ten-year-old was engaged to a man of sixty. In early 2005 a Saudi man in his sixties drew international attention for marrying fifty-eight times; his most recent bride was a 14-year-old he married in the spring of 2004.
If Jones really wanted to offend Muslims, she could have made her novel a negative portrayal of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha and a denunciation of the devastating effects child marriage has had upon untold numbers of girls in the Islamic world ever since. That would certainly have brought her opprobrium and threats, but she would have had the satisfaction of knowing that she was standing up for the dignity of the human person. As it is, her book does indeed seem to be as Spellberg describes it: a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.”
That being the case, however, since when has Random House or any American publisher refrained from publishing a book because it was ugly and stupid? When has any American publisher passed up a book because they thought it cheapened Jewish or Christian sacred history? Put down your copy of The Da Vinci Code and ponder that one for a minute.
It is becoming increasingly common for Americans to bow to pressure from Muslims to accommodate Islamic practices and mores. It is also becoming common for the specter of violence to inhibit discussion of the elements of Islam that jihadists use to justify terrorism. Where will all this accommodation end? It will not end until America is a Sharia state, unless enough Americans begin to resist. Or, even if America never becomes anything remotely approximating a Sharia state, how much of our freedoms and rights will we allow to be eroded away before we stand up and call a halt to this?
If Random House had axed Jones’ book because it is silly and stupid, that would be no problem. But to explain that they did so because of the possibility of violence is only to reinforce the lesson that threats and violence work. And with that lesson re-taught, our freedoms will continue to erode.