The Book-Banning Double Standard

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.