Random House Bows to a Mufti


Random House has cancelled the August publication of Sherry Jones' book, not because Jones violated the rules of her genre (it's a straight-forward novel), and not because Jones plagiarized (she conducted thorough research and wrote up a complete bibliography). Random House ditched the book because its narrative depicts a history of Islam in which women are treated as more than second-class citizens:

Life has been a roller coaster lately for Jones, 46, who went from being a Book-of-the-Month Club pick to seeing her novel dropped by Random House, which said in a statement it had received "cautionary advice" that the fictionalized story of one of Muhammad's wives might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."…

Earlier this month, [Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas] wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that the book was "provocative" and followed a tradition of anti-Islamic writings that "use sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith."

To be fair, Spellberg's principal objection is that she's listed in Jones' bibliography, but aside from that, what kind of academic uses her publishing connections to suppress an objectionable cultural artifact? Several "progressive Muslims" have come to Jones' defense, among them, Asra Nomani:

"Okay, so this isn't the next great piece of literature, but it pushes the ball forward in challenging dogmatic ideas about how you can relate to Islam," Nomani said in an interview this week. "We need movement from this static relationship we have with Islam. . . . Look, Mary and Mary Magdalene have taken hits and survived somehow."

Almost as alarming as a publishing company disappearing a book simply to avoid the possibility of a Rushdie-esque reaction from radical Muslims, is the idea that artists have an obligation to protect, or even spare religous figures. Mary and Mary Magdelene haven't "survived": they've been dead for almost two millennia, supposing they ever existed. Yes, some sects of Christianity continue to hold both women in high theological esteem, but negative literary and visual renderings have had little effect on those perceptions. 

These types of concessions were a regularity during the the Inquisition, when the Catholic Church reacted to oppositional literature with violence and terrorism. It took centuries for European intellectuals and decent Catholics to escape such oppression—what does a growing willingness to tolerate the artistic notions of Radical Islam say about the power and future of free thought in a global society?

By dropping Jones' book, Random House is doing its part to engender Radical Islam's perpetual adolescence and oppressive influence. Had it gone ahead with the book's August run, it's likely that critics would have devoted more time to analyzing Jones' writing than accusing Random House of advancing a modernist Western agenda against Islam.

Addendum: Associate editor Michael C. Moynihan tapped this story first, on Aug. 6, and closed with, "Let us hope that The Jewel of Medina gets picked up by another publisher." Several European publishers are considering the book, but all signs point to a no-go:

Recently, Jones got a boost when a Serbian publisher agreed to print 1,000 copies, but within 24 hours said it wouldn't do another run after protests from a Belgrade mufti, or Islamic scholar. Soon another mufti was quoted as saying the first one was using the book to pander to orthodox Muslims. Kern says publishers in Hungary, Russia, Italy and Spain have purchased rights to print the book, but are waiting to see what happens in Serbia.