I like to provoke my students on occasion, to probe their minds and consciences, so I recently gave them an article by Alvaro Vargas Llosa from the International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/articles/
Though there is no actual sex in the novel, one passage in particular created a hullabaloo because it describes the deflowering of the Prophet's youngest wife: "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."
This passage seems innocuous enough, but those unfamiliar with Islam may not be aware that in the Koran, all depictions and portrayals of religious figures - and certainly the Prophet! - are strictly forbidden. Hence the portrait of the Prophet and any allusion to his intimate relations would be considered an insult to the entire Muslim community. The majority of Muslims will feel deeply offended and disrespected even if they do not resort to violence, but sometimes extreme violence by Islamic fanatics can result, as the world has seen in the case of the Danish cartoonist, for example. One US professor of Islamic studies, Denise Spellberg, was so upset by Jones' book and the possible repercussions of its publication that she e-mailed Random House, going so far as to describe the book as … `a declaration of war' and `a national security issue.' It was to forestall the possibility of such violence that Random House, after having paid Ms Jones an advance, decided on the advice of its consultants to cancel publication of the book. The public statement issued by the publisher said:
`We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some. However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it also bears, and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel'.
I asked my students for their views. Initially, all my students were scandalized that an American author would take it upon herself to write about the Prophet at all, let alone provide a fictionalized version of his life, as the whole idea is blasphemous: "How dare she? What does she know about it? Let her write about something else! She is showing no respect for Muslims. How would they like it if we made fun of Jesus?" my students fired at me indignantly, as I cowered behind a sheaf of papers.
There was an awkward silence after I told them about one of the nicest bosses I have ever had, who kept a plastic Jesus action figure in her desk because she thought it was hilarious. Occasionally we would joke around and move the figure's arms or legs to resemble the limbs of a contortionist, or, better still, have him hold edifying sermons directed to certain colleagues whose behaviour and/or attitudes we found more than slightly irritating. To us, it was all in good fun, with no desire to offend, yet such behaviour would be absolutely unthinkable for a Muslim: talk about a clash of cultures!
I explained to the class that Jones herself, somewhat naively, claimed to "…have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed…" even envisioning that her book "would be a bridge-builder." As we continued the class discussion, students agreed that perhaps many non-Muslims were simply unaware of how serious an offence it is to fictionalize any part of the Prophet's life, whether or not it is intended as a pure work of imagination. The majority of the class continued to have great sympathy and understanding for those who used violence to defend their faith, quoting such old favourites as `the right to swing your fist ends where the other man's nose begins,' but there was a vocal minority who felt that those who choose to read it should have the right to do so, whereas those who do not, are free to ignore it.
Stay tuned for next term, when we begin the trials of Lady Chatterley…!