A University of Texas scholar stands by her assessment that a novel about the child bride of the Muslim prophet Muhammad is deliberately provocative and could incite outrage from fringe elements in the Islamic community.
Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the Austin campus, rejects charges that she is squelching free speech and argues that the book takes too many liberties with the facts.
The novel's author, Sherry Jones, says the historian has smeared her book and her reputation and overstepped the bounds of academic responsibility.
And a Muslim blogger entangled in the controversy says he is neither an apologist for the book nor a proponent of censorship.
"This is something that comes out looking like Muslims are trying to stifle free speech, but we had nothing to do with it," said Shahed Amanullah, who launched the site altmuslim.com in 2001 to encourage debate on issues about Islam.
The flap began in May, when Random House Inc. canceled publication of The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones, because "publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community" and "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment," according to a written statement on the company's Web site. The novel is about A'isha, the child bride of the prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder.
A Historian's Warning
But for now the controversy heating up the blogosphere is over how the publisher came to that decision.
In April, the book's editor at Random House's Ballantine Books sent a copy of it to Ms. Spellberg. The author had read Ms. Spellberg's historical text on A'isha, and wanted the scholar to write a blurb for the book jacket.
Ms. Spellberg said she found the book inadequately researched and had her lawyer write to the publisher demanding that her name not be associated with the book. "She distorted the past to sell a book, and I didn't want to be part of this distortion of Islamic sacred history," Ms. Spellberg said in an interview with The Chronicle.
At the same time, however, Ms. Spellberg wrote to an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, another imprint of Random House, expressing her concern that the book could spark violent protests like those that followed the 2005 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Muslim prophet with a bomb in his turban. Knopf is also planning to publish a book by Ms. Spellberg, "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an," about early American views of Islam
"You can't fool with sacred history and not expect there will be a consequence," Ms. Spellberg said in her interview with The Chronicle. She stressed that she was not the only scholar who raised concerns about the book.
The editor at Knopf, in turn, sent an e-mail message to other executives at Random House, which terminated its contract with the author after getting responses from several other academics. "We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions," says Random House's statement.
Ms. Jones, the author of the novel, said that Random House did not inform her that other scholars had raised the possibility that violence would erupt over the text. "One critic had warned of a heated response from Muslims," she said.
But Ms. Jones blames the Texas history professor for inciting more furor than the novel itself might have created. "I think that what she's done is reprehensible," said Ms. Jones. "She wasn't satisfied with calling me and discussing the book with me—she never did that. She called her editor and spouted hyperbole."
Ms. Spellberg sticks by her assertion that the main problem was with the book's lack of historical credibility: " My concern as a professional historian was that this did not meet the claims of being extensively researched." She adds that she didn't really think the publisher would cancel the publication.
Muslim Reaction on Blogs
Ms. Jones also accuses Ms. Spellberg of attempting to stir up opposition within the Muslim community, by bringing the book to the attention of Mr. Amanullah at altmuslim.com.
Mr. Amanullah is a Texas real-estate developer who also writes opinion pieces for other publications, including the Web site beliefnet and the Chicago Tribune. He said he got a call from Ms. Spellberg about the book and sent a private e-mail message to a discussion group to see if anyone else had heard about it. But that correspondence got forwarded to another Web site, Husaini Youths, where one respondent proposed a seven-point plan to make sure that the book was withdrawn.
Mr. Amanullah said he has not passed judgment on the book (he's only read a short excerpt) but does not believe that it should be barred from publication. "I'm trying to keep that balance. She has the right to publish her book; we have the right to be as vocal as we want."
"It's certainly not on the level of the Danish cartoons," he said. "A'isha is not a divine figure or a prophetic figure; she has no religious significance. There's a big difference between saying something about her and putting a bomb in the turban of the prophet."
Mr. Amanullah also believes that although Muslims are tired of having their religion and culture misrepresented by non-Muslims, they are starting to develop a "thick skin" and learning to react by getting their own messages out through the news media.
Some Muslims have responded violently to depictions of their religion, especially the 1988 book The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie, an Indian-born British novelist, faced death threats and went into hiding for nearly a decade after the book was published.
In 2004, the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered after he made the film Submission, depicting the treatment of women under Islam. The riots following the 2005 publication of the Danish cartoons killed at least 50 people.
However, Mr. Amanullah points out, reactions to Fitna, a short Dutch film released this year that explored ties between Islam and terrorism, were relatively muted.
And angry reactions to The Jewel of Medina are so far limited to the Internet and e-mail messages.
Although colleagues are writing to support her, Ms. Spellberg said she is getting about three angry e-mail messages per hour from people who have read about the story on various blogs or in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, many suggesting that she is aiding terrorism and recommending that she be fired, she said.
And Ms. Jones said she is now struggling to repair her reputation and find a new publisher after characterizations of her novel as soft-core pornography. "Isn't the university supposed to support the dissemination and free exchange of ideas?" she said in an e-mail message.