No doubt you recall the storm that erupted last summer over Sherry Jones's novel The Jewel of Medina, a retelling of the life of Muhammad's child bride Aisha. Hopeful of a nice quote for the cover, Random House sent a proof to an academic expert on Aisha named Denise Spellberg, who instead denounced the book as a 'very ugly, stupid piece of work', tantamount to "soft core pornography". She is reported to have suggested that Random House might face a rerun of the infamous cartoon protests of 2006 were they to go ahead with publication. The publishers dropped the book. A braver soul in the UK picked it up only to have his house firebombed. Good times.
Anyway, last week Sherry Jones came to Austin as part of her publicity tour (it was finally brought out in the states by Beaufort plains why Random House Publishing canceled her book on the prophet Muhammad's first wife, The Jewel of Medina. Photograph: James Snook/ APBooks, who also picked up OJ Simpson's murder memoir If I Did It after it was dropped.) I was keen to go, partly out of solidarity over the free speech issue, partly from curiosity regarding a book my compatriots cannot read thanks to censorship by fear – but mainly because Denise Spellberg is employed by the University of Texas at Austin and I thought the atmosphere might get a bit spicy.
I arrived at the very quiet bookshop just as Jones was finishing some opening remarks to an audience of a dozen. She was making the case for the freedom to offend, suggesting that Muhammad himself would have agreed. After all he had denounced the pagan idols at Mecca as useless lumps of wood and iron, a profoundly offensive statement to those who revered them. No I'm not convinced either, but it was a nice try.
The excerpt was set during the siege of Medina, a key episode in the career of the prophet, but written from Aisha's viewpoint. Our teenage heroine was bristling at the patriarchal culture that forbade her from participating in the fighting. She wanted to be out there with the lads, smiting the infidel. Alarming as that may sound the tone was actually very perky, more like one of those films Angelina Jolie makes when she isn't trying to win a prize, only set in 7th century Arabia. This stops seeming so surreal when you register that The Jewel of Medina is a romantic historical novel, which just happens to use sacred figures as its central characters.
The first murmurs of dissent came during the Q&A. After some very polite inquiries about historical research a middle-aged woman sitting at the back spoke up. She was troubled by Jones's "exploitation" of Aisha, who – since she was dead and all – couldn't respond to her portrayal. At least that's what I think she was saying; she herself didn't seem too sure. The second hostile question came from someone I assume was a student. For her the issue was that Jones had included scenes based on a controversial tradition, which portrays Aisha disappearing into the desert with a young swain who was not her husband. Slanderous whispers proliferated until Allah sent Muhammad divine confirmation his favourite wife hadn't committed any sins. For the Sunni who revere Aisha the mere suggestion of betrayal on her part is profoundly offensive. "Do you realise how you hurt people by inserting yourself into this controversy, without acknowledging the context?" she asked. (Needless to say, she herself was not a Muslim.)
And that was it, as far as outrage was concerned.
Looking on Amazon the next day, I saw several reviews from Muslim readers, some of whom were exceedingly angry, others who understood what she was trying to do but were deeply unimpressed, and even one who was broadly sympathetic. Which is fine; that's the way it should be, that's what Jones expected. Meanwhile the book has now been published in several European countries with large Muslim populations without incident. One mufti in Serbia got the book briefly withdrawn – but then he was criticised by another mufti and the book went back on sale. All of which leads me to wonder – without all that frothing at the mouth from Spellberg, would there have been a scandal?
The firebomb has alread seen to it that The Jewel of Medina has no British publisher, but the US edition will be distributed in the UK either this spring or autumn. Will there be more uproar? Or will the media, various intolerant religious types and spiritual totalitarians of a more secular persuasion calm down enough to understand that it's just a book, that you can read it or not read it, even write a very negative review online if you don't like it-and that's the end of the story.