While America’s mainstream media has spent the last few weeks obsessing about the imagined book-banning proclivities of Sarah Palin, news of a very real threat to Western values of tolerance and freedom of expression has gone largely unremarked upon by those same commentators.
In London three men have been charged over a firebomb attack on the home of Dutch publisher Martin Rynja, who owns the UK rights to The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel by the American author Sherry Jones which tells the story of the relationship between Mohammed and his child bride Aisha. The novel is being likened to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in terms of its potential for inciting anger amongst Muslims. And sure enough, London’s resident mob of radical clerics has defended the attack on Rynja’s home and warned of more trouble to come.
The Jewel of Medina first hit the headlines in August, when the U.S. arm of Random House dropped plans to publish the book. The publisher said “credible and unrelated sources” had warned that the book “could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.” Random House has come in for heavy criticism for giving in to “threats of threats.” Rushdie himself said his publishers — which ironically still publish The Satanic Verses — had allowed themselves to be intimidated, while a Washington Post editorial concluded that the “intolerant fringe, newly empowered and emboldened by this victory, will be around for a long time to come. Leading cultural institutions must stand up to it — lest the most violent acquire a veto over our most precious freedoms.”
At least Rushdie, having endured years of living under police protection following Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his murder, is on solid ground. Not so the Washington Post. Along with most other U.S. media outlets, the Post declined to publish the Mohammed cartoons when that controversy raged back in 2005; perhaps it doesn’t consider itself to be a “leading cultural institution.” That said, we should welcome the paper’s newfound resolve: perhaps when The Jewel of Medina appears in the U.S. — the book has been taken up by another publisher — the Post will be first in the queue for serialization rights.
Critics are right to point out that the decision by Random House to drop the book amounts to self-censorship and will make further acts of intimidation by radical Islamists more likely. But it’s easy for those who have no connection with the book or with Random House to head for the moral high ground. While it’s unlikely that anyone would have driven a truck bomb into the offices of Random House, there’s no shortage of lone fanatics who are willing to make good on death threats issued by Islamist rabble-rousers, as the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the reaction to The Satanic Verses and the Mohammed cartoons showed. Publishers may have a responsibility to stand up for freedom of speech, but they also have a responsibility to ensure that their employees don’t have their throats slit.
And why, Random House could be forgiven for asking, should the burden of standing up to the Islamists fall on book publishers, when their counterparts in journalism — the Washington Post’s outrageous double standard aside — and in the TV and movie industries, all too often choose to tread on the eggshells of political correctness when dealing with the subject of Muslim extremism? Political leaders, both in Europe and increasingly in the U.S., aren’t much help either, leaving their police forces and intelligence agencies to tackle the criminal manifestations of extremism while doing little to address the underlying ideological and cultural causes.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this saga, however, is the fact that there very likely would have been no controversy were it not for the intervention of one Denise Spellberg, a professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas. A Random House editor sent an advance copy of The Jewel of Medina to Ms. Spellberg, apparently hoping that she would provide a cover “blurb” or some other form of endorsement.
The editor picked the wrong authority on Islam. Spellberg was outraged by the book, describing it as “pornographic,” and immediately contacted an acquaintance, Shahed Amanullah, who runs an online magazine for Muslims, to voice her anger. Amanullah contacted other Muslim academics to solicit reactions and news of the book quickly found its way onto the extremist grapevine. Separately, Spellberg, who coincidentally is writing her own book for Random House, contacted an editor there to sound the alarm. According to the editor, Spellberg called the book “a declaration of war” and “a national securit