UT associate professor Denise Spellberg is at the epicenter of a controversy surrounding the yet-to-be-published novel "The Jewel of Medina." The book, written by former journalist Sherry Jones, is a work of historical fiction that offers an untraditional retelling of the story of Aisha, one of Islamic prophet Muhammad's several wives. According Jones, the novel attempts to "honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to [those] ... whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored - silenced - by historians."
But Spellberg thought differently. After Jones sent her a galley copy to review (she had used one of Spellberg's books while researching the novel), Spellberg called Random House, the book's publisher, to say that the book's content could potentially offend and anger the Muslim community. Random House subsequently pulled the book from its publication lineup.
Although many believe that Spellberg violated Jones' free speech rights, they're misplacing the blame. While Spellberg, along with several others, warned Random House about the book's content, it was Random House that made the final decision to suspend its publication. According to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, deputy publisher Thomas Perry said Random House made the decision to halt publication of "The Jewel of Medina" due to its concern "for the safety of the author, employees of Random House ... and anyone else who would be involved in the distribution and sale of the novel" after being counseled by "security experts and Islam scholars."
Clearly, Random House was compelled to withhold the book more out of fear of retribution than on the whims of an allegedly agenda-driven professor. And their concern is certainly understandable. It's hard to forget the mindless acts of violence that occurred after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran several unflattering portraits of Muhammad, or the now-infamous fallout from the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in 1988, which led Iranian leader Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini to issue an order for Muslims across the world to Rushdie.
But regardless of whether Spellberg and company were right or wrong in their prophecy that "The Jewel of Medina" would elicit violent responses from the Muslim community, no book, be it admittedly fictional or not, written by any author should be withheld from publication due to fear of a potential reaction.
The right to free speech may not equate with the right to have a book published - just because a thought exists does not mean a company must allow it space on a page. But it's unfortunate to see Random House abandon the democratic ideal of free speech because of hypothetical threats. As history proves, the books and publications that have incited the most outrage were often the most progressive and thought-provoking. Although "The Jewel of Medina" is certainly not comparable to Copernicus' "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres," it does offer an original look at Islamic history through an expressly fictional lens.
Publishing houses should evaluate works based on their quality, originality and appeal, not their potential to create contention. Random House clearly saw the value of this work, as shown by its initial $100,000 offer to Jones for a two-book deal.
At this point, there's no easy solution for this mess. The quick, superficial fix of solely blaming Spellberg or Random House for the censorship of Jones is not adequate. This controversy delves into the core value differences between Western and Islamic-influenced cultures - namely, the merits and value of free speech.
While Random House shouldn't have allowed itself to be coerced by fear, it can hardly be labeled an enemy of free speech - just a fair-weather fan. We're not sure which is worse.