FREEDOM of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution. To be able to voice one's point of view in a forum for review and debate can be healthy.
On the other hand, blasphemy and denigration of character are outside the realm of free speech and are grounds for legal action.
Recently, Random House canceled publication of a novel written by Sherry Jones, "Jewel of Medina." After having paid a $100,000 advance, it decided against publication because it offended sensibilities of Muslims.
Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas whose field is Islamic studies, reviewed the book and said: "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography."
The book was promoted as fiction about the life of Aisha, one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims, Aisha holds a very significant role in the growth of Islam. She is recognized for having transmitted over 2,000 of the sayings and actions of Muhammad, known as hadith. She memorized the entire Quran. She also was an educator, teaching both men and women about Islamic legal issues after the death of the prophet.
When her name is mentioned, Muslims ask for blessings upon her soul. To say she is well respected by all Muslims is an understatement.
Freedom of speech is irrelevant when a figure such as the prophet or his family are made fun of. It has always been taboo to make fallacious statements about sacred men or women. There has to be a hands-off approach to preserve their importance in history.
Recent history tells us some areas are more sacred than others. In 1998, David Irving was found guilty of being a Holocaust denier. A judge stated that he "persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence."
Irving's academic background is the history of World War II. He became controversial when he was labeled an anti-Semite and a racist for allegedly having undue sympathy for the Third Reich. In 2006, while in Austria, he was placed in prison for glorifying and identifying with the German Nazi Party. Was his free speech violated? In this case, his thoughts and speech went outside of the bounds set by a particular group and he paid dearly.
Islam has bounds that cannot be violated. One of them is to blaspheme any of the prophets and family members. All the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, are respected and held in high esteem by all God-fearing people. They were given a responsibility by Allah to guide humankind to righteous behavior.
Unfortunately, due to ignorance and disrespect for Islam and for Muslims, a false image is being fed to the public and free speech is being portrayed as the victim.
After the violent response to the Danish cartoons degrading Muhammad, there has been a nonstop effort to put Muslims to the test as to whether they are a violent people. Books such as Jones' novel are meant only to heighten the frustration of Muslims who have a fervent love for Islam and Muhammad. Any effort to raise the ire of Muslims is an opportunity for Muslims to educate the masses. Instead of emotional outbursts, we must be determined to speak the truth about Islam with dignity and meticulousness in the face of lies and distortions.
Another publisher has taken on the responsibility to print Jones' novel. I have not read it, but I can imagine its sole purpose is to titillate and arouse the sexual sensibilities of the casual fiction reader and make the author a huge sum of money. Those who are looking for the truth about Islam must seek knowledge from more reliable resources. There is a plethora of nonfiction literature available for the serious reader. Only then can Islam be appreciated for the beauty that it is.
Jamilah Rasheed of New Haven is coordinator of the Connecticut Islamic Speakers Bureau. Readers may write her in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.