Something terrible is happening today. Sherry Jones’ first novel The Jewel of Medina is not being published. I haven’t read the book — a fictional recreation of the life of one of Mohammed’s wives — but I know for a fact that the history of literature and thought will be poorer for its absence.
Random House, having scheduled the book for an August 12 publication, canceled it after an American academic roused Muslims to protest. The publishers say they received “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.”
It goes without saying that Random House has behaved shamefully — as shamefully as the New York Times and much of the rest of the mainstream media acted when they refused to publish the Danish cartoons mocking Mohammed or when they attacked Pope Benedict for his civilized criticism of Islam instead of the Islamic mobs who murdered and rioted in response. These almost casual capitulations are deeply disturbing. Decades of political correctness (the doctrine that there is virtue in speaking falsely) and multiculturalism (the doctrine that one set of values is as good as another) have weakened the confidence of the intellectual classes in the cultural inheritance of the West. They no longer even seem to understand what they’re supposed to be standing up for.
But equally disturbing to me is the defense of the novel mounted by the author and by Asra Q. Nomani in the Wall Street Journal. Now first, let me say that Ms. Nomani is a courageous journalist who has crusaded for the rights of women within Islam. I speak of her with respect, but I respectfully disagree with her point of view. Ms. Nomani writes that Random House’s cave-in “upsets me as a Muslim — and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way.” The understandably devastated Ms. Jones told Reuters, “I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed. … I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder.” Ms. Nomani further assures us that Islam permits historical fiction and that, according to the Koran, Mohammed is only mortal.
Well, that’s nice, but it’s all beside the point. It doesn’t matter a damn what the Koran says or whether the novel is offensive to Muslims or not. The very need for such apologias and the very fear felt by Random House condemn the violent principles of the gangsters they’re appeasing. No one defended Dan Brown’s massive bestseller The Da Vinci Code by saying, “Oh, Dan was trying to build bridges to the Christian community.” The Da Vinci Code spends its nearly five hundred pages trashing the central beliefs of the Christian community. But for all the hysteria in intellectual circles over fundamentalist Christians, no one had to cower before them or make mealy-mouthed excuses.
That’s exactly as it should be. Listen, Christianity is central to my life, but if you want to write a novel attacking it or dump a crucifix in urine and call it art, my feeling is: knock yourself out, you brave thing, you. I’ll argue with you here, and again at the gates of heaven, in perfect faith that the truth will win out in a free market of ideas.
Because I am not a citizen of the world. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. And one of the big advantages to that citizenship is the Constitution and its protections of free speech and freedom of the press. That Constitution and those protections did not waft down to earth on a shaft of light as a result of God’s special love for us. Men, in perilous mental fight, wrested them out of specific intellectual traditions, classical and Judeo-Christian both. Many have defended those rights on the battlefield and many have died in their name. Many are defending and dying for them this very day.
Publishers — whether of books, newspapers, blogs, or anything else — are among the chief protectors and exercisers of our free discourse. 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.
Random House and the New York Times and all the rest have every right to be afraid. I’m afraid too. How can we not be? We’re artists and intellectuals under threat from violent thugs. But in this ongoing jihad against our rights to publish and speak, it is the life of the mind that is the battleground. Unlikely soldiers though we are, we have to make a stand.