It is understandable, in the wake of The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoon controversy, and the murder of Theo van Gogh, that people would be concerned about the decision by publisher Random House to cancel the publication of the novel The Jewel of Medina by American author Sherry Jones.
After all, the publisher did cite as one of their reasons for cancellation a fear of violent Muslim reprisal against the book, which is a semi-fictional portrayal of the relationship between the prophet Muhammad and his young wife Aisha. In the wake of the cancellation, the internet is filled with assumptions – about what the book actually says (except for the prologue, which has been made public) and the nature of Muslim protests against the book – that neatly fit into the pattern people now expect.
In this case, however, that pattern has been broken. There have been no actual threats of violence from Muslims to date, nor has there been any organised effort by Muslims to stop the publication of the book. The author herself – unlike others who have sought to intentionally provoke and insult – has insisted that her book was written with a profound respect and admiration of the central characters. And the Muslims she has engaged with so far (in three sites online) have treated her respectfully, allowing her to clarify her intentions without censorship.
This does not sound like the makings of a crisis. My experience with this general issue – which dates back to the Satanic Verses days, where I publicly defended the right of the book to be published, along with the right for Muslims to express their feelings towards it – leads me to believe that we have a unique opportunity to avoid a replay of past confrontations between Muslim sensibilities and freedom of speech before the book is actually published in the US and UK by new companies in a few weeks.
I comment on this not as a casual observer, but as someone who has been caught in the middle. Back in April of this year, I received a phone call from Denise Spellberg, an Islamic studies professor in whose class I have guest lectured. She had been given a pre-release copy, which she thought resembled a racy novel rather than an accurate depiction of the life of Aisha, a person whom Spellberg has profiled in a book considered to be one of the most authoritative on the subject.
As I had not heard anything of the book, I sent an email inquiry to a private email group for graduate students in Islamic studies, asking if anyone could tell me more. My e-mail found its way to the website of Husaini Youths, an overseas forum catering to young Shia Muslims. That website, with my email embedded in it, caught the attention of Random House, which subsequently cancelled the imminent publication of the book.
The fear that led to this is unfounded. There is no way (violently or not) to prevent the publication of any book, especially in the age of the internet. Muslims around the world, no matter how upset they may be at various commentaries on Islam, are beginning to realise this. The muted reaction to the film Fitna, when compared with reactions to the Danish cartoons, indicates that Muslims may be getting a thicker skin and are seeking more constructive ways to respond. Free and open discourse is in the interests of everyone, including and especially Muslims, who find their views misrepresented or suppressed so often.
By extension, this also means Muslims have a right to vigorously critique anything that is written about them or their religion, without crossing the line into intimidation and violence. This may seem obvious, but some pundits who acknowledge the absence of threats still castigate Muslims for casting a "heckler's veto" – as if Muslims should only embrace this book wholeheartedly. This silencing criticism should not be tolerated in view of the free speech we should strive for.
Ultimately, it is in the best interest of Muslims to engage those who harbour no ill-will towards us or our religion, however misguided Muslims may feel they are. Jones wrote her book because she found the stories around the origins of Islam to be compelling ones that she thought could be appreciated by a non-Muslim audience. When I interviewed her last week, she expressed her appreciation for these figures in early Islam and challenged Muslims to come forward and tell their own versions of these stories. To me, her intentions put this book in a different category altogether. Muslims would be wise to approach it in a spirit of literary debate rather than a quasi-colonial conspiracy.
If Muslims took her up on her challenge – writing to a western audience about historical Islamic figures instead of leaving the job solely to those from outside the faith – this potentially divisive issue could turn into a free exchange of ideas and stories that could serve to enlighten all, and perhaps prevent the next outbreak of literary conflict. But if Muslims are unwilling or unable to be authoritative or persuasive about the "truth" of Aisha and others, that is no one's fault but their own.
The "truth" about history, whether derived from historical fact or fiction, remains a subjective, human-made construct. Sherry Jones is filling in a vacuum in the west – admittedly with her own interpretation of events – but one that should be allowed to divine a greater truth : the image of Aisha and others that will result when a thousand interpretations are compared with known historical information and debated in the public square.