Two weeks ago, my colleague Matthew Sheffield noted an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about a publishing company going back on its agreement to publish a historical fiction/romance novel centered around Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad. As of August 21, the mainstream broadcast media networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) are ignoring the controversy, even as more print outlets cover the developing story.
Today, Erik Lacitis of the Seattle Times reported the story in the August 21 paper, including details of how Random House-retained book reviewer and University of Texas Austin professor Denise Spellberg actively sought to inflame Muslim Web sites with fury over the unpublished manuscript of Spokane, Wash., journalist Sherry Jones's "The Jewel of Medina" (emphasis mine):
Ironically, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin - cited by Jones in her list of reference materials - has been called the instigator for the publisher's decision.
Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies, also under contract with Random House's Knopf, was sent a galley of the book. Random House was looking for a positive blurb.
Instead, Spellberg went ballistic.
"Denise says it is 'declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue.' She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the buildings and staff and widespread violence. Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons ... thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP," an editor at Knopf wrote in an e-mail that made the rounds at Random House.
The professor went further.
She contacted Shahed Amanullah, 40, an engineer and real-estate developer in Austin who runs the Web site altmuslim.com.
Having never heard of the book, Amanullah says, he sent e-mails to about 200 graduate students in Islamic studies, telling them of Spellberg's "frantic" call and asking if they had heard about the novel.
"What I got back was a collective shrug of the shoulders," says Amanullah.
"The thing that is surreal for me is that here you had a non-Muslim write a book, and you had a non-Muslim complain about it, and a non-Muslim publisher pull the book."
So let's get this straight. A college professor asked to review the book not only privately sent her concerns to the publisher but actively sought to circulate excerpts she thought offensive in order to inflame Muslims and make her prophecy a self-fulfilling one. And yet, on top of that, every Muslim who was sent Spellberg's complaints thought she was overreacting.
At the very least Spellberg was acting unprofessionally, at worst she was actively doing her part to potentially endanger author Sherry Jones's life. As for Random House, the decision to not publish shows cowardice in the face of terrorism, especially given the blase reaction of Muslim scholars who found no problem with Jones's manuscript.
So where are the mainstream broadcast media on this story? Nowhere to be found. A search of Nexis from May (when the book was shelved) through today found no hits for "Jewel of Medina" or "Sherry Jones" when searching the news transcripts of ABC, CBS, and NBC, whose "Today" show hyped Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code", a fictional account involving a love affair between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
For MRC's May 2006 study -- "The Trashing of the Christ" -- on media hype about Brown's Christian-offending novel, click here.
—Ken Shepherd is Managing Editor of NewsBusters