Intolerance of the written word, the most recent example being Sherry Jones' Jewel of Medina, is not confined to Islam.
Sherry Jones, an American journalist, started thinking about Islam after 9/11 and researched its history widely. She came up with the idea of writing her first novel about Aisha, the youngest bride of the Prophet, as a feminist, historical narrative. She was thrilled when Random House gave her a $100,000 as a two-book advance.
She addressed a session titled "What can you publish about the Prophet Muhammad?" at the Global Investigative Journalists Conference in Lillehammer, Norway, recently. "Aisha was engaged at six and married at nine," she told international journalists. "I fictionalise the dynamics of the harem, for instance." This third conference, held every two years, attracted some 500 journalists from 80 countries.
Aisha became his favourite wife and, after his death, actually led an army against her rival Ali, husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatima, outside Basra. She was captured, released and eventually became one of Islam's foremost scholars in that early era.Problem begins
Jones, on her own admission, became obsessed with this character and spent five years research and writing the book. The problem began when the publishers sent it to Denise Spellberg, an Islam scholar at the University of Texas, in the hope that she would provide a favourable quote for the blurb. According to reports, Spellberg called the novel "a declaration of war" and a "national security issue" that might provoke violence.
She also added that it amounted to "soft-core pornography" — a reference to a passage where Muhammad consummates his marriage to his child bride. She thought Jones was taking too much creative license. The novelist, however, believes that Spellberg feels that "she owns the narrative of Aisha".
This May, Random House cancelled its contract and her agent re-sold the book to Beaufort Books in the U.S.; it was earlier bought by Gibson Square in the U.K., which is going ahead. Salman Rushdie, who is published by Random House, issued a statement that he regretted that it had allowed itself to be intimidated. "This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed," he commented.Publisher attacked
At the end of September, the London home of Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja, who is Dutch, was firebombed and three men arrested by the police. Rynja was not hurt in the attack. The men were followed by undercover police and apprehended.
Random House's decision is reminiscent of what happened to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses some two decades ago. Penguin India was to publish it and sent it to Khushwant Singh for his opinion. Khushwant believed that it would inflame passions in the Muslim community and Penguin backed out. Much of the media supported this ban and the first riots in the world over The Satanic Verses broke out, ironically enough, in the city where Rushdie was born; a few lost their lives. It is debatable whether the publisher's decision was pragmatic or not: what is clear is that every time someone imposes a ban, or exercises self-censorship, it emboldens fundamentalists.
After some brief introductory remarks at the Lillehammer conference, Sherry Jones was asked questions, beginning with: "Is Denise Spellberg a bitch?" Clearly taken aback at the ferocity of the question she replied, calmly, that she herself was a pacifist and feminist who was interested in the role of women in early Islam. She also insinuated that Spellberg, as an academic who had studied Islam for years, considered herself the repository of all knowledge in the U.S. on Aisha.
Aisha is a controversial figure in Islam's history who fuels the Shia-Sunni divide. She was childless and was challenged by Ali, whose wife Fatima had several children. Aisha once lost a necklace and, when she went to look for it, was left behind by Muhammad and his entourage who didn't realise that she was missing. She hailed a passing camel rider and hitched a ride to Medina, which caused a raging scandal. To settle the issue, Muhammad consulted Ali, who recommended that she be sent to her parents' house.
Also on the panel with Jones was Asra Q. Nomani, originally a Mumbaikar and former Wall Street Journal correspondent who was one of the last people to see Daniel Pearl alive in Karachi.Objections
She has written an opinion piece in the Journal which criticises Spellberg. Spellberg is quoted as believing, wrongly, that it "made fun of Muslims and their history" and that it was a "very ugly, stupid piece of work". As the academic says: "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."
Nomani, now at Georgetown University in the U.S., also objected to how the utterances of the Taliban and Al-Quaida were being used to define the Muslim community.
She thought that censorship of the book amounted to a self-fulfilling prophecy but pointed out how, under the Inquisition, books were burned, while Russian novelists had also been jailed and exiled, all of which demonstrated that intolerance of the written word was by no means confined to Islam.
The Lillehammer conference also saw a documentary titled "Fatal Words" by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation about the reaction to an article in a Nigerian newspaper by a young woman called Isioma Daniel. She had studied journalism and politics in the U.K. and got her first job with Thisday, a Lagos-based national daily. The Miss World contest was to be held in the country later in 2002 and she criticised the protests by some Nigerian Muslims against the forthcoming event, where scantily-dressed women would be paraded.
She handed it over to her editor, who passed her copy without reading all of it. It ended with a passing tongue-in-cheek reference to the Prophet. The piece sparked off a massive communal conflagration between Muslims and Christians, leaving 200 dead, 11,000 homeless and forcing Daniel to flee the country. She is now in Norway, working with a Norwegian newspaper.
At the time, the Governor of a northern Islamist state in Nigeria issued a fatwa against her, saying: "Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is abiding on all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty."Critical look
The documentary is critical of the Miss World organisers who shifted the event to London rather than cancel it, despite the bloodshed. They were asked on British TV whether they had "blood on their swimsuits".
Miss England entered into a deal with Julia Morley, the contest organiser, to participate in London on condition that she wouldn't accept any prize. In the film, Miss Norway, who was also a reluctant participant, meets Daniel in their home country in more peaceful times to exchange notes.
It was clear that the young woman had inserted the sentence at the last minute and originally thought it was "funny, light hearted" and "didn't see it as anything anybody should take seriously or cause much fuss".
Asked in Lillehammer whether she would revise her opinion in the light of the widespread rioting, she took a carefully nuanced position. She said that she was extremely sorry for what had happened, but repeated that she didn't think it warranted such a violent reaction.