Random House's cancellation of "The Jewel of Medina" ignited a furor last month - all when a Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal detailed how cowed publishing executives had pulled the historical novel over fears it could push Muslim fanatics into a murderous frenzy just like during Europe's infamous "Cartoon Riots," and after publication ten years ago of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." The canceled novel, as author Sherry Jones described it, was a miraculously researched "love story" about the Prophet Muhammad and his favorite wife, the child-bride A'shia.
Jones, a 46-year-old journalist, had spent some six years working on her debut novel and its sequel. She'd gotten a $100,000 advance from Random House. She'd expected to go on a nation-wide book tour last month for her novel, a Book of the Month pick.
It never happened, of course.
Random House executives, egged on by a politically correct University of Texas professor of Middle Eastern studies in Austin, decided "The Jewel of Medina" was too risky to handle. And after the WSJ's attention-getting Op-Ed, Jones quickly found herself in the center of a controversy over a book that, much to her irritation, nobody had even read! The episode provided a "window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world," Asra Q. Nomani, a college journalism professor and Muslim, wrote in her tell-all Op-Ed.
Random House aside, some publishing houses remain tenaciously wedded to Western Civilization's values -- even it means offending some Muslims and university professors. Next month, the first English-language editions of "The Jewel of Medina" will be available in book stores. Beaufort Books, an independent New York publishing house (the one publishing O.J. Simpson's demented "If I did it") will bring out the "Jewel of Medina" in America. And in Britain, it will be published by London's Gibson Square, a prestigious publisher with a formidable list of authors and titles, many appealing to conservatives, including presidential candidate John McCain's book "Faith of My Fathers."
"I was completely bowled over by the novel and the moving love story it portrays," Gibson Square publishing director Martin Rynja announced last week. "I immediately felt that it was imperative to publish it. In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear."
Gibson Square's announcement came a few weeks after a Serbian publisher pulled 1,000 Serbian-language editions of the novel, and apologized for releasing it, after a Muslim group expressed anger over the novel. In Spain, Italy and Hungary, publishing rights have been lined up, too.
"Jewel of Medina," however, may be engulfed in a new controversy, at least if comments Jones made to American Thinker are anything to go by. Last month, Spellberg, the politically correct professor, was widely cast as a villain after her edict that "Jewel of Medina" was inflammatory, unfair to Islam, and unfit to publish. But political conservatives may now have reason to turn their scorn on Jones, criticizing her political views and, apparently, what is an idealized treatment of Islam. Jones provided written comments to questions that were submitted to her by e-mail. (An edited Q&A is provided below.)
What promoted Jones to write "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel?
Her inspiration was the 9/11 terror attacks, which prompted her to delve more deeply into Islam. The terror attacks, of course, prompted many Americans to ponder the dark side of contemporary political Islam, not to mention backwardness of much of the Middle East. Jones -- a self-described feminist brought up as a Baptist - related that Islam's oppression of women caused her to take a scholarly journey into the religion's earliest period.
And to her surprise, she liked what she saw!
Jones found an Islam she could relate to, an Islam she could understand. In its beginnings, Islam did not oppress woman, she concluded. Women were liberated! Early Islam's women, she said, prayed side-by-side their men; fought with them in battle; and even advised them on important issues, she said.
And the most remarkable women of all was A'isha. She "particularly captivated me with her wit, intelligence, generosity, courage, and leadership," Jones said.
The Prophet Muhammad's favourite and youngest wife, to be sure, elicits much controversy today, most of it revolving around her precise age when she married Muhammad; not to mention her age when their marriage was consummated. Some apologists for men who enjoy sex with pubescent girls say A'isha's age is irrelevant: Muhammad, after all, was merely following God's command.
Jones, for her part, praises A'isha as a brave warrior, scholar, and a valued adviser to Muhammad. She even finds A'isha inspiring, considers her a kindred soul-mate.
All in all, an aspiring novelist could not dream up a more compelling heroine than A'isha. Accordingly, Jones related, "I felt driven to tell (A'isha's) story because it empowered me, and I hoped -- and still hope -- it will have the same effect on others, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim."
Inevitably, some Muslims - perhaps taking their cue from Columbia University's late Edward Said and his iconic book "Orientialism" -- have complained no white Western woman has any business writing about Islam and A'isha; that such people never could be objective because they by nature are racist and presumptuous, brimming with cultural superiority.
It would be hard to make such claims against Jones, however, for she seems not to embrace any particular religious viewpoint. Certainly, she demonstrates none of the self-confidence many if not most Muslims express about their own religion and culture.
"I embrace all religions now as containing Truth," Jones explained. "I believe God is Love. My years as a devout Christian helped me in the writing of my books because I still remember what it is to pray constantly and ask myself what God would want of me in any particular situation. I still rely on my spiritual self -- my inner A'isha -- for comfort, wisdom, and moral guidance."
A'isha, as it so happens, also is an endearing to which Denise Spellberg, the caustic university professor, has devoted much scholarship. And certainly, there's nothing wrong with this: A'isha was surely a remarkable woman for her time, even if she was on the wrong side of history, based on what the Muslim world looks like today. All in all, something odd is going on in respect to A'isha groupies among Westerners; and that, namely, is the enthusiasm with which so many willing embrace and identify with strange foreign cultures. And the more exotic, primitive, and cruel, then so much the better!
The Bible, to be sure, is full of strong, remarkable, and intriguing women who played major roles in shaping Christianity and Western culture. If it's military leaders that Jones fancies, what about the Old Testament's Deborah? Commanding an Army of 10,000 Israelites, she faced "900 chariots of Iron" when defeating the Canaanite general Sisera. Well, maybe Jones was home sick when that story was taught in Sunday School. For her, there's only A'isha: She becomes her kindred soul-mate.
Perhaps Jones says such things -- not because she deeply believes them -- but because it's what she believes will sell. Make what you will of such muddle; of what might be called part of the cultural and spiritual malaise afflicting so many self-doubting Westerners these days, especially in Europe where low birth rates represent a kind of cultural suicide, the subject of Mark Steyn's depressing bestseller, "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know it."
The story of Jones and her novel gets stranger, though. Yes, it gets downright weird!
Understandably, Jones she was upset over Random House's self-censorship. Her dreams of making it as a big-time novelist were in jeopardy after Random House's cancellation. Perhaps the veteran journalist, who'd been reporting from Spokane, Washington, for the Bureau of National Affairs, would be permanently trapped in the old journalism grind.
So whom did she blame for her bad luck, for Random House's cancellation? Incredibly, it was not Random House -- first and foremost. No, Jones blamed a far more sinister force...the Bush administration!
As Jones explained:
We in the U.S., particularly in New York where the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack occurred, are living in a culture of fear brought on by the World Trade Center attack and fear mongering from the U.S. government. Other countries are more accustomed, I think, to strife and war, since they are not geographically isolated as we are.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive. I know there are violent factions within the Muslim community. However, if I let fear stop me from speaking and writing and trying to make a difference in the world, what kind of life would I be living? There are things worse than death. And I have never believed my books -- written with respect and regard for Islam and its Prophet -- would incite violence.
Jones right-to-publish rallying cry is, of course, what you'd expect from any responsible writer. But it's obviously wacky beyond belief to blame the Bush administration for Random House's self-censorship. Responding to her display of Bush Derangement Syndrome, I dashed off an e-mail to her in a pique: "It's interesting that you blame the Bush administration's "fear mongering" for Random House's decision. I'm surprised this angle did not come out in the long WSJ piece, which had set the tone for this whole controversy."
No, I blame the culture of fear we live in, which is due in part to the Bush administration's "fear mongering." Please don't confuse the two, and I'm sorry if I was unclear in that regard. Random House made its decision because of very real fear inspired by the 9/11 attacks (they do, after all, live in New York); I'm just saying that our entire culture now walks in fear that's fueled in part by "orange alerts," loss of privacy, rhetoric about an "axis of evil," etc. that we have dealt with since that horrible day. Random House's decision is the latest in a series of decisions made out of fear of offending Muslims (such as the Dunkin' Donuts/Rachael Ray fiasco) which, if I were a Muslim, I would find offensive in itself.
Jones' reference to Rachael Ray concerned a controversy that the television personality touched off by wearing an Arab headscarf (like the one favoured by the late and wily Palestinian strongman and terrorist Yasser Arafat) in her Dunkin' Donuts television commercial.
How might yet another controversy affect sales of "The Jewel of Medina"? Call me a cynic, but I'm betting it will be a best seller.
An edited Q&A in mid-August with Sherry Jones:
DP: "I don't believe I've ever seen a comment from you as to what inspired you to write the novel? Would you elaborate a little on that?
SJ: "I was inspired by post-9/11 news accounts of women's oppression in the Middle East. A feminist, I began reading for more information and discovered that women's roles and situations in Islam's early years, under Muhammad, were much different. Women fought alongside men in battles, prayed with the men in mosques, and advised Muhammad as part of his inner circle of Companions. A'isha, his youngest wife, particularly captivated me with her wit, intelligence, generosity, courage, and leadership.
"She was the first female Islamic scholar, with an extensive knowledge of the Qur'an; she could recite from memory more than 1,000 poems; she advised Muhammad and his successors; and she led troops into battle in the first Islamic civil war, which began the Sunni-Shi'ite rift. I felt driven to tell her story because it empowered me, and I hoped -- and still hope -- it will have the same effect on others, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim."
DP: "Were you raised in any particular religion? Would you comment on that?"
SJ: "Yes, I was raised a Baptist. I embrace all religions now as containing Truth; I believe God is Love. My years as a devout Christian helped me in the writing of my books because I still remember what it is to pray constantly and ask myself what God would want of me in any particular situation. I still rely on my spiritual self -- my inner A'isha -- for comfort, wisdom, and moral guidance."
DP: "As I recall, you got a seizable advance from Random House for the book, $100,000. What happens now? Do you have to return that advance under the contract?"
SJ: "My contract allowed me to keep the advance money I had received and to collect the rest. It may seem seizable until you take into account the fact that I worked six years on both books, and am still working now!"
DP: "Have you gotten what could be described as "hate mail" or any threats? Anything that is of concern to you?
SJ: "I have received some very insulting mail, but not a lot. My only concern is the criticism of me and my books by people who have not yet read them."
DP: "Presuming you find another publisher for the U.S. market, do you think all the publicity triggered by the cancellation may be a blessing in disguise because of all the free publicity you've gotten?"
SJ: "It will be a blessing if it helps draw attention to my books' messages of women's empowerment and peace, and if it enables my books to reach a wider audience so the work of building bridges with this other, demonized culture can begin. It will not be a blessing if it continues to provoke divisive, hate-filled, racist rhetoric, and if it continues to spread misperceptions about my book."
DP: "It's interesting that you hit a temporary roadblock in the U.S. -- and yet you've got publication rights in three European countries. How do you explain that?"
SJ: "We in the U.S., particularly in New York where the Sept, 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack occurred, are living in a culture of fear brought on by the World Trade Center attack and fear-mongering from the U.S. government. Other countries are more accustomed, I think, to strife and war, since they are not geographically isolated as we are.
"Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive. I know there are violent factions within the Muslim community. However, if I let fear stop me from speaking and writing and trying to make a difference in the world, what kind of life would I be living? There are things worse than death. And I have never believed my books -- written with respect and regard for Islam and its Prophet -- would incite violence."
DP: "It seems that your blog is down. Did you take it down or do you have a technical problem? What's going on in respect to your blog?"
SJ: "I took it down because I did not want to offer a forum for discussion of my book by people who have not read it. I realized that it was taking up a lot of my energy and time for a discussion that was not progressing because there is no published book to debate, and I decided that people should use another forum for this discussion. When the book is available to the public to read, I may resume my blog."
DP: "I was amused to see the response your daughter wrote, and posted on a blogger's site who had criticized your novel. If you don't mind sharing some personal information: Are you married or a single mom? How have your other family members reacted to all of this?"
SJ: "I want to leave my family out of this, please."