As a Montana newspaper reporter, Sherry Jones dreamt she could contribute to global understanding with a novel about the prophet Muhammad and his feminist side. Instead, her book threatens to become a flashpoint similar to Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, after the firebombing of her British publisher.
The 46-year-old American, whose only previous book was a hiking guide, appeared to have had little inkling of the minefield she was venturing into when she decided to write The Jewel of Medina, the fictionalised story of Aisha, Muhammad's youngest and favourite wife. "My book seemed destined for the best-seller list," she said.
Jones's hopes soured when her American publisher pulled the novel, citing the possibility that it might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment". All was not lost: a British publisher took it on. Then, last weekend, an incendiary device ignited at the owner's north London house; three men have been arrested.
As if to underline the stakes, listeners to Radio 4's Today programme on Monday heard Anjem Choudary, the former head of the extremist group Al-Muhajiroun, suggest it was a "predictable" reaction: "The messenger Muhammad said that whoever insults any messenger of God, they will carry capital punishment." Jones countered that moderate Muslims "need to stand up and be counted and have their voices heard".
Cue an almighty row that has fragmented into exchanges on censorship, whether it is morally acceptable to cause offence to other cultures, and the merits of Jones's book, which has been described as "soft porn", "chick lit" and Mills & Boon. Although publication of the book in Britain has been postponed indefinitely, a small New York publisher plans to go ahead with a print run of 50,000 copies tomorrow. So far the book has been officially published in Serbia.
Publishers are said to be waiting to see whether Jones ignites a repeat of the Rushdie affair 20 years ago, when there were bomb attacks on British bookshops, two translators were stabbed, one fatally, and an arson attack against a Turkish book festival killed 37 people. More recently, Danish cartoons of Muhammad sparked widespread protests, and the film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered after making a documentary about women in Islam.
Assured by the FBI that she had not been targeted, Jones said last week that she planned to go on with life as usual. "I'm excited that the book is coming out because once people read it, any possible threat will be eliminated."
Jones, with her Baptist background in North Carolina, seems an unlikely catalyst of turmoil. An air force "brat", she followed her father's postings before spending 20 years in Montana, which she considers home, graduating from the University of Montana's creative writing programme. She was still a college student filing stories to the local paper when she began a 28-year career in journalism that also took her to suburban Philadelphia.
In 1990 she co-wrote The Hiker's Guide to Montana's Continental Divide Trail. After working as entertainment reporter for a local paper and writing the occasional article for Newsweek, she moved to Spokane, Washington, 18 months ago to write on the environment for the Bureau of National Affairs, a news agency in Washington, DC, and report for Women's eNews.
For security reasons Jones has declined to give details of her family, yet her 14-year-old daughter Maria broke cover to take issue with a blogger by declaring that her mother's book "is anything but ‘trashy' ", adding: "My mother is a respectable person."
Jones began working on The Jewel of Medina in 2002 as her own "personal response" to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Hearing about the repression of women in Afghanistan, her initial impressions of Islam were "negative". Never having visited the Middle East, she took a two-year course in Arabic.
"As I read – books by western scholars, Islamic scholars, religious clerics, ancient Arabic poetry – what I gained from my reading was an impression of Islam being a religion of, primarily, peace." She came to respect Muhammad as a leader who introduced women's rights centuries before women's lib.
But it was the "epic love story" between Mohammed and Aisha that drew her in. She identified with the young bride's sense of humour and courage. The book's original blurb read: "Married at nine to the much-older Muhammad, Aisha uses her wits, her courage and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again, taking 12 wives and concubines in all."
Sensitive to the charge of writing soft pornography, Jones has insisted the book contains no sex, although it begins: "Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan's waist. My neighbours rushed into the streets. What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God's Prophet entwined around another man." Five years and seven drafts later, Jones was "thrilled" to land a $100,000, two-book contract with Random House, "the biggest publisher in the world". By her account, Random House "loved" the book and set up an eight-city tour for her. Foreign orders began flooding in and Book of the Month Club promised to feature The Jewel of Medina in its August issue.
Then everything began to unravel. Jones sought an endorsement from Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, whose published book on Aisha she greatly admired. Spellberg hated the book and reportedly warned Random House that it was "more dangerous than The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons" and amounted to "soft-core pornography".
She may have been referring to a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "The pain of consummation soon melted away, Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life."
Jones, whose favourite authors include Iris Murdoch, Rose Tremain and Naomi Wolf, admitted she had invented some things. But she was "stunned" by Spellberg's condemnation and left "reeling" by the news that the academic was threatening to sue Random House if her name was associated with the book. Jones called on Spellberg to retract her comments, which she said were "slanderous" and would stoke anger among Muslims.
The final blow fell several weeks later, when the publisher pulled the plug. However, Martin Rynja, the Dutch-born owner of Gibson Square, a small, independent publishing house in London, was willing to take the risk. Described as "one of the bravest publishers in the business", who had brought out Alexander Litvinenko's Blowing Up Russia and OJ Simpson's If I Did It, he was captivated by Jones's novel. "If a novel of quality that casts light on a beautiful subject we know too little of in the West cannot be published here," he said last month, "it would mean the clock has been turned back to the dark ages."
Forewarned of the arson attack by police, he was unhurt and is now reported to be under armed guard. His office is closed, as is that of Beaufort Books.
Random House's self-censorship has led some commentators to conclude that Rushdie's critics may have lost the battle to ban his book but they have won the war. Kenan Malik, the writer and broadcaster, wrote in The Guardian last week: "In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised."
Some progressive Muslims, such as the American feminist journalist Asra Nomani, believe Jones placed too much emphasis on the notion of Muhammad and Aisha as sexual beings, but judge the reaction too extreme. "We need movement in this static relationship we have with Islam . . . Look, Mary and Mary Magdalene have taken hits and survived somehow," she said.
Jones says the drama has taught her "to accept life as it happens". Whether her sequel will be published next year remains open to doubt. She should be on safer ground with her next project: "Lady Godiva, a woman with a horse and a cause." Or will she?