Salman Rushdie has criticised his publisher for withdrawing a controversial novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride because of fears of a violent backlash from Muslims.
Random House, which published Rushdie's recent books Fury and Shalimar the Clown but not The Satanic Verses, cancelled Sherry Jones's debut novel, The Jewel of Medina, in the latest showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.
Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa — death edict — for The Satanic Verses, accused the US publisher of giving in to intimidation.
"I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have cancelled another author's novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals," Rushdie said.
"This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed."
The withdrawal of Jones's book has renewed the debate over self-censorship in the treatment of Islam.
Random House feared igniting violent protests such as those that followed the release 20 years ago of The Satanic Verses and the publication of Danish cartoons of Muhammad in 2005 — or even a repeat of the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh after his documentary about women in Islam.
The Jewel of Medina is a first-person narrative of the life of A'isha, often described as Muhammad's favourite wife, from her engagement to the Prophet at the age of 6 until his death, when she was 18.
The author avoids graphic sex scenes between the two. But A'isha says: "This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It's always painful the first time." After consummating her marriage to the Prophet, she says: "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."
Jones, a journalist from Spokane, Washington State, has never visited the Middle East but spent several years studying Arab history and learning Arabic. She insisted the novel brought together all she had learnt.
"They did have a great love story," the author said of Muhammad and A'isha. "He died with his head on her breast."
Random House bought the novel last year in a two-book deal worth a reported $100,000 (£53,000). This spring Jones began making plans for an eight-city book tour to follow the August 12 publication.
After sending out advance copies of the book, however, Random House deleted it from its list. The deputy publisher, Thomas Perry, said the company had received "cautionary advice" that the book "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment".
The spotlight soon fell not on a radical Muslim cleric but on an American academic, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas. Ms Spellberg had been sent an advance copy of The Jewel of Medina for review. She strongly objected to the fictionalised account of A'isha's life.
She alerted the editor of a popular Islamic website, who sent out an e-mail saying that Ms Spellberg found the book "incredibly offensive". Word spread and a strategy was proposed to force the author to withdraw the book.
Ms Spellberg said: "As an expert on A'isha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life.
"It . . . counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales," she wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal.
Jones noted on The Washington Post website, however, that Random House acted "not because of terrorist threats, mind you — but because of threats of terrorist threats. Because, in other words, of fear".