The Wall Street Journal tells a disturbing story: Random House in the U.S. has cancelled plans to publish a historical novel about the wife of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Their fear? That Sherry Jones's novel, The Jewel of Medina, could (in the publisher's words) "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment." (Strangely, though, this didn't occur to them when they bought the book last year in a $100,000 two-book deal.) WSJ writer Asra Q. Nomani calls it early on: "The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world."
Even more disturbingly, Nomani shows that one American academic played a disproportionately large role in the fate of The Jewel of Medina. "In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin," writes Nomani. Offended by the book, Spellman asked a colleague to "warn" Muslims on his website, and pushed Random House to withdraw the novel.
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, surely we can all rest a little easier knowing that Denise Spellberg is out there deciding what we should be allowed to read.