As National Banned Books Week winds down this Saturday, the librarians are all in a flutter and the book nerds proudly count how many formerly banned books they have read. Ironically, many of these banned novels are now required reading in schools. But books aren't banned anymore; that is ancient history, right?
Local Spokane writer Sherry Jones could tell you otherwise. She is the author of "The Jewel of Medina," a historical novel about A'isha, the third wife of Mohammed. It was scheduled to be published by Random House in August, but in May the publishers backed out, saying that this work of fiction may draw a negative reaction
from the Muslim community, which has a particular sensitivity when it comes to depicting Mohammed.
Random House's fears are not ill-founded; in 1988, Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" led to the death of the book's Japanese translator and six others in a riot in Pakistan. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a religious edict that forced Rushdie into exile in England.
But Jones' book does not portray Mohammed
or Islam in a negative light. This novel was written for entertainment purposes, not as a historical text which transforms its readers into scholars of Islam. Nobody reads "The Other Boleyn Girl" and claims to be an expert on Mary and Anne Boleyn's lives.
Books like Jones' are everywhere. Just wander through the bibliography section of Barnes and Noble and you will find a wealth of historical fiction about the lives of Middle Eastern women. Muslims may not like them, but that is what books are; they contain information, which the reader may choose to read, to criticize, to shower with praise or to ignore completely.
When asked why she thought "The Jewel of Medina" ought to be banned, Denise Spellberg, associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin and Jones' harshest critic, claimed that the book was written in mockery of Islam and is a national security issue. Spellberg never says exactly what it is about the book that is so dangerous, other than its sexual content, which consists of one scene, and historical inaccuracy, although artistic license has been taken on nearly every work of historical fiction ever published.
Naturally, Jones countered these claims by saying that she has great respect for the religion that she studied and wrote about for five years.
This book may not say anything about Middle
Eastern culture, Islam, or Mohammed that is especially offensive. Of course, hardly anyone at this point actually knows what the book says yet (although we can find out in October when it is published by Gibson Square).
"Given the respect with which I treat the Muslim prophet, I never expected to be killed because of it. I still don't," Jones said.
Jones has concerns that go beyond her book, which she voices in her defense.
"Is Random House no longer publishing books about Islam? How does this bode for the future of publishing? What will be banned next? Art? Music? Theater? Dance?" she asked.
Freedom of the press is one of the most basic American rights, and while a given publishing company has the right to reject a manuscript, denying it out of fear of offending an audience denies that audience the right to choose to read and draw its own conclusions from the work. While Jones' book hasn't exactly been censored in the traditional sense of the word, she still suffers the ramifications of being denied because of controversial content.
But don't worry, unlike Random House, Gonzaga University seems to be safe from this climate of fear. Linda Pierce, chair of the Public Services department of Foley Library, says that in the 19 years she has been here, no books have been banned or even challenged. There is, however, the necessary paperwork in case one of our classmates has the sudden desire to save the world from Harry Potter.