So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. — Franklin Delano RooseveltThough I suspect the belief is rare among you, Gentle Readers, the idea that large corporations are, in practice if not in theory, entities or "corporate citizens" which will automatically support such "western" goods as freedom of speech or any other form of individual liberty is actually a fairly well-entrenched idea among many of us in the "West".
The truth is, corporations — particularly large ones, run by managers and not by actual entrepreneurs — are not citizens of any country, nor do they have any systemic ethic beyond that of the bottom line.
Earlier this evening, thanks to _ocelott_, in a post in the genrereviews community, "that Random House recently announced they have cancelled — or "suspended" — publication of Sherry Jones's historical novel, The Jewel of Medina, a book based on the life of one of the wives of the prophet Muhammed. "The book was a go right up until May, with a $100K advance and a two-book deal. So what went wrong? Well, apparently you can't write fiction about Muslims."
_ocelott_ expressed "horror and disbelief," but I'm afraid I shake my head only in (unsurprised) horror. It takes a lot more than craven corporate cowardice to shock me — rather, it is corporate courage that surprises me.
The original information comes courtesy of an item by the writer Asra Q. Nomani, writing in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
Ms Nomani quotes Random House Publishing Group deputy publisher Thomas Perry as saying, "it disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now," and that the company received advice, "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." He added that publication would be postponed, "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."
The author herself says she "can't talk about the publisher's decision not to publish — not until Random House/Ballantine says so, for reasons I can't disclose ;-(," but does confirm she is aware of only one advance reviewer who thought the book incendiary, Denise Spellberg, PhD, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas.
According the Journal, Professor Spellberg not only told Random House Ms Jones' novel was beyond the pale, but that,
In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life." Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."Well of course, as her own example — The Last Temptation of Christ — goes to show, the film was released nearly 20 years ago and her nation has not fallen. Although I'm still unclear as to whether she believes Scorsese's film too should have been banned (or at least, not financed). She may be saying she'd prefer to keep dictatorial lunatics happy if it means she won't need to walk through metal detectors any more.
I should probably note that the above lines quoted from the book are all I have read ot it. I'm tempted to suggest it might be a candidate for a Bad Sex Award, but that would be pretty churlish based on only four sentences. Further, I'm not a Muslim and have no idea whether that scene, or the entire novel, would in fact offend one, 37, 561 or 12 million Muslims. But as we shall see, that's not the point. Though there are those who would insist otherwise in most of the West there is no inherent right to be protection from being offended. If offence is to be the criteria for censorship, I'd have quite a list for the Index Librorum Prohibitorummyself.
But at this point, the quality — or "offensiveness" — of the novel is not — or shouldn't be — the point.
I haven't been able to track down any Muslim groups threatening fatwas on Ms Jones or her book, but if I had, that would not not be the point, either (though it might complicate it a little, certainly for the author).
The point is: in what kind of a society do we wish to live? One in which we proclaim a right to free speech but knuckle under to the first academic who tells us that a novel is, "a declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue," if the book sees publication, or one in which we proclaim a right to free speech and live as if that right actually matters?
Presuming, just for the sake of argument, Sherry Jones' novel really is every bit as dangerous as Professor Spellberg claims it, so what? Liberty, exercised only when it's safe is no liberty at all, but merely the safety of slavish and fear. I'll be safe so long as I don't look them in the eye or — heaven forfend! — intefere!
I would like to think the corporate courtiers responsible for this capitulation to a theoretical threat would be at least secretly ashamed of themselves, but Random House is not a publisher in the sense it was when founded by Bennet Cerf. No, it is but one of many income-earning branches of a multinational corporate conglemerate for which books and literature are no more and no less important than this month's fashion style of tube socks.
There is one further point to be made about Random House's cowardice and cupidity. The Journal notes that the book was not cancelled ("suspended") until it was informed by email that Professor Spellberg not only didn't approve of Jewel of Medina, but that she would sue Random House were she to be in any way "associated" with the novel.
...back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an.")Meanwhile, extremist Muslims have apparently taken this issue between their rotten teeth, having learned that pre-emptive threats sometimes reap remarkable proganda returns. More from the Journal.
"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote. "Denise...[t]hinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."...That day, the email spread like wildfire through Random House, which also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel. On May 2, a Ballantine editor told Ms. Jones's agent the company decided to possibly postpone publication of the book.
On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."
After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn't "know anything about it [the book]," but telling them, "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, 'Jewel of Medina' — she said she found it incredibly offensive." He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.I haven't been able to confirm any of the above — my research turned up altmuslim.com, of which Mr. Amanullah is listed as an editor, but on which I could find nothing about Jones' novel.
The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah's email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims — "Hussaini Youth" — under a headline, "upcoming book, 'Jewel of Medina': A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure "the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world."
I have been able to confirm that that the story has brought the wing-nuts and racists on "our" side out of their dank holes. One quote from a knuckle-dragger at stoptheaclu.com (there are extremists everywhere, folks!) ought to be enough . It was number two when I googled Professor Spellberg; you'll have no trouble finding more if (for some reason) you want 'em.
So what isn’t offensive to the Muslim community? Oh, that’s right….sex with nine year old girls, beheading people, subjugating those who aren’t Muslim, oppressing women, need I go on?"No doubt the screaming will go on for days or weeks and the myths about what actually happened will evolve like virulent cancers for months or years while the rest of try not to get caught in the twin cross-fire of governmental terror on the one hand and free-lance terror on the other.
Between you, you've managed to inflame white racists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, without even publishing a book! One more nail in the coffin being made ready for the "home of the free and the land of the brave."
What can I say but, "Bravo!" if in fact you wish to live in a world where it takes only fear to ensure that nothing is said but what is safe?
Somehow it seems at least tangentially relevant that August 6th was the 63rd anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima. Lest we forget indeed.
Note: Thanks to a reply from Sherry Jones, I have edited this to correct an error in the initial version of this essay. It was not, as I originally wrote, Ms Jones who threatened to bring on the lawyers, but Professor Spellberg. My thanks to Ms Jones and my apologies for the error.
All images copyright © 1973 by Gilbert Shelton.