In this season of political conventions, Americans are beginning to focus on who should lead the "land of the free and home of the brave." But does the United States deserve a descriptor drenched in the language of conscience and courage? It's increasingly dubious.
This month, Random House in New York shelved plans to release The Jewel of Medina, an historical novel about the Prophet Mohammed's second and youngest wife, Aisha. Their reason: It might incite a violent backlash.
Might? That's all it takes these days? According to whom?
Welcome to where things get interesting. Long before the controversy arose, Random House sent an endorsement request to Denise Spellberg, a non-Muslim history professor at the University of Texas. She found parts of the manuscript offensive and decided that Muslims should feel the same.
Reportedly judging the book to be a "national security threat," she depicted it as "more dangerous than the Satanic Verses." Prof. Spellberg ought to know: She teaches Salman Rushdie's notorious novel in her class. Clearly, she doesn't back censorship.
And yet her lawyer warned Random House not to use Prof. Spellberg's name in or on the novel. Random House then consulted more "scholars of Islam." In effect, the publisher invited postcolonial theorists with ulterior agendas to make mincemeat of its mass-market offering. Also pulled in was the corporation's head of security.
Meanwhile, a listserv of graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies caught wind of the still-unpublished novel. They heard about it through a Muslim website manager who claims to have received a "frantic" call from Prof. Spellberg. His postings got forwarded to various forums, ultimately reaching a blogger who circulated a protest strategy.
There's no evidence that anybody paid serious attention to his plan.
However, no matter the resounding lack of threats, Random House announced it would postpone publication for the sake of safety – including that of the author, Sherry Jones.
Mind you, Ms. Jones is free to court a fatwa: Random House has now terminated her contract so she may shop the manuscript elsewhere. "We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors," its corporate statement reads. That's one way to prove it.
How to begin unravelling the absurdity of this decision? For starters, Random House is in the business of free expression. Of course so are newspapers – and most of them didn't reprint the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
But this novel can't be compared to those cartoons. The Jewel of Medina treats both the Prophet and his bride with deep affection. My own conversation with Ms. Jones affirms her respect for the dignity of Aisha.
"I wrote Jewel, in part, because I recognize the absence of women's voices in the way Islamic history is told," she explained by phone. "Women played a huge leadership role in the founding of the faith. Silencing my voice only achieves more silencing of theirs."
Thus another absurdity. The muzzling of Sherry Jones originated with a woman. To boot, Denise Spellberg is non-Muslim. Why no cries of interference, imperialism, even racism from those who typically tell non-Muslims to stay out of Islamic issues?
And a curious form of racism the pulping of this book is. Random House has revealed what low expectations it has of Muslims. Pre-emptive censorship – PC, you could say – reduces all believers to the status of children, incapable of handling sensitive material with civility. Now, that's offensive.
All Muslims aren't infants. The man who took Prof. Spellberg's call insists he never wanted Ms. Jones gagged. PC does no favours to the Muslim community, he asserts, because "we're not going to silence our way out of problems."
In Serbia, where the novel is already out, some Muslims have indeed complained, prompting the publisher to apologize and stop sales. But a high-ranking Muslim cleric has defended the book's publication despite bristling at a few of its love-laced pages. Bosnian Muslims have also taken freedom's side, persuading testy muftis to remember the alternative: Slobodan Milosevic.
In the West, publishers don't sweat the spectre of Slobodan Milosevic. What they fear are replays of Salman Rushdie. I know this firsthand: When the manuscript of my book, The Trouble with Islam Today, landed on the desks of UK publishers, some suggested that my name would be too exotic for multicultural Britain. The honest ones mumbled Mr. Rushdie's name. About 40 rejections arrived before a small, Scottish company stepped up.
While some know the price of free expression, others know the value of it. My Canadian publisher even allows me to post free-of-charge translations on the Internet for readers in the Islamic world, where the book is widely banned. So far, there have been more than 500,000 downloads – and no deaths.
Perhaps the U.S. could take its cues about liberty and bravery from up north. My home publisher? Random House Canada.
Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University and creator of the Emmy-nominated film Faith Without Fear.