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.

NEXT: The McCain Family's White Lies

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Q: Why do terroists blow up buildings?
    A: Because it works.

    Q: How do we stop them from blowing up buildings?
    A: Make blowing up buildings a losing strategy.

  2. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with serious Christian Criticism. Everything from The Last Temptation of Christ (the book, then the movie) to The Grand Inquisitor to Why I Am Not A Christian to Beyond Good and Evil to Why God Is Not Great…

    But I think that I have never seen any serious Islamic Criticism. The closest I think I’ve come is The Satanic Verses… and that was presented as a comic novel (well, in some ways, the most serious of criticisms is whether a thing can handle mockery… but you know what I mean).

    All that to say: I’m more impressed with Christianity than Islam. The most fundamentalist Christians I know are conversant in Theory and are capable of intelligently discussing stuff like The Problem of Evil.

    Islam? Well… do they have any serious criticism? From within, I mean.

  3. She could always self-publish it.
    If it’s any good people will buy it, and she already has invaluable publicity.

  4. The most fundamentalist Christians I know are conversant in Theory and are capable of intelligently discussing stuff like The Problem of Evil.

    You were fine until the above sentence. It is true that *some* of the (better educated, study this stuff for a living) fundamentalist Christians are conversant on these topics, but outside that small group I’ve not heard much more than parroting pre-made arguments and passing it off as “discussion”.

    I think it has much less to do with the religion at hand and more to do with whether *culturally* a person’s intellectual curiosity is elevated or stifled. Case in point, there were times in Islamic history where they were *much* more willing, eager even, to brook discussion and argument about faith, while the Christians were busy killing people for heresy.

    The Jews have always been game for a good argument, and they along with the Buddhists *win* in this arena.

  5. Sure, Islam has had serious criticism from within. But unless the critics are very, very quiet about it, or are just quibbling over tiny aspects of doctrine, they risk death.

    I think Jones will be lucky if she can get her book published by any large publisher. Her best bet might be a place like Soft Skull or Amok Books that specializes in provocative oddities. Or perhaps go the self-publishing/print-on-demand route and sell online through Amazon. She’d get enough free PR that it might be viable, assuming Amazon has the cojones to sell it.

  6. Yeah, she should put it on the web and put a paypal button up next to it.

    Doesn’t Amazon have a self-publishing area too? Put it there. Of course, if Amazon turns her down, we get to have a conversation about that as well.

    Fun all around!

  7. Elemenope: Yes, but Christianity got better at accepting criticism/discussion over the centuries, while Islam has gotten worse.

  8. I’ll buy it. I’ll even place it prominently in my living room window (I’m unlikely to read it, but hate small-mindedness). Come and get me, terrobastards.

  9. I did a paper in college for my anthropology major that was about how different sects of Christianity viewed a particular subject (can’t remember what it was).

    I spoke to the various pastors/priests/etc. at the different denominations around campus. What I came away with was that the Baptist preacher I spoke to was an ignorant, intolerant moron (low end of scale) and the Catholic Jesuit priest was the best educated, most intellectual, and most open-minded of all that I spoke to (high end of scale). Interesting stuff.

  10. Papaya —

    And my contention is that has a great deal more to due with politics and culture, and very little to do with the *religion itself*.

    Christianity got a huge booster shot in this arena by being hosted by the free-wheeling Americans for the last two hundred years. This is a direct result of Christian *oppression* in the years prior to the founding. (And was something that the founders were quite concerned about, as you can tell from the Constitution as well as their debates and writings).

    If it were half a million Muslims fleeing oppression in the 17th-18th century that established America, Christianity would be the intellectual backwater, and Islam the pinnacle of “reasonable discussion”, likely as not.

  11. the Catholic Jesuit priest was the best educated, most intellectual, and most open-minded of all that I spoke to (high end of scale)

    Now there’s a shocker. 😉 The word “jesuitical” didn’t enter the language for nothing, y’know.

  12. Mary and Mary Magdelene haven’t “survived”: they’ve been dead for almost two millennia, supposing they ever existed.

    Thanks for that clarification. I guess that explains why they’re not listed on whitepages.com.

  13. Elemenope, I assure you, my statement was exceptionally precise. The most fundamentalist people I know happen to be a Catholic guy who hangs out in the smoke shack and a former boss who was “non-denominational” and did the homeschooling thing.

    Both of them can really throw down.

    The one time I was witnessed to by a Muslim, we were discussing the five pillars and I said Mohammed’s name a handful of times without dropping a PBUH and he got pissed at me and told me to stop saying his prophet’s name.

    I’m infinitely more impressed by the Christians I’ve had discussions with than the Muslims.

    I’m sure it’s because of my white male privilege though and if I only had a wider circle of acquaintances, I’d find out that Christians and Muslims were exactly the same and the only difference was stuff like holidays and preferred desserts!

  14. I’m unlikely to read it, but hate small-mindedness

    Like what’s on the Chapman thread?

  15. I think some on this thread are missing a valuable point. If Libertarians start rioting and/or blowing up buildings and people over “objectionable” representations of capitalism then we can get favourable treatment from the media. Huddle up and give it a thought.

  16. Jaybird —

    I did not mean to impugn your personal experiences; only that more generally those trends do not hold up. And methinks we are using different definitions of “fundamentalist”, since literalism was anathema in Catholicism since, well, ever. If by “fundamentalist” you mean “hard-fucking-core”, then I’m with you. I’ve met lots of people with *strong* faith who could more than hold up their end in a theological tussle.

    One of my favorite quotes:

    “The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skepticism: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that.” – Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols, Skirmishes of an Untimely Man)

  17. the Catholic Jesuit priest was the best educated, most intellectual, and most open-minded of all that I spoke to (high end of scale).

    A Catholic confesses to two priests that he once selfishly said a novena just go get a Maserati.

    “What’s a Maserati?” asked the Franciscan.

    “What’s a novena?” asked the Jesuit.

  18. Alternate header:

    MUFTI DIVING

    Eh? Eh?

  19. its kinda fucked up how abraham paved the way for the three most dangerous ideologies in human history. maybe abraham was satan?

  20. I wonder how much it does to make a religion more open to criticism to have members of that religion constantly in contact with other religions. As has been pointed out, Buddhists and Jews are both very into arguing about faith and very tolerant of people blaspheming, and both groups have been spread all around with people of other religions, generally in the minority, for most of recent history. Similarly, Christianity didn’t really open up until a whole bunch of different kinds of Christians started mingling on the new continent. Islam was much more open when the middle east was a major trading route between India, Africa, China and Europe, and then closed up when it turned into a bit of a backwater (or did it turn into a backwater because it closed up?)

  21. MUFTI DIVING

    Yes. I like it.

  22. I’m sure it’s because of my white male privilege though and if I only had a wider circle of acquaintances, I’d find out that Christians and Muslims were exactly the same and the only difference was stuff like holidays and preferred desserts!

    having gone to grad school with a lot of muslims, both american and foreign-born, that is my general impression.

  23. It’s not hard to make a logical case for allowing free speech among muslims, but only if you disregard the practical effects of letting them do something that many of them are not mature enough to handle.

  24. Yeah, hard-fucking-core is what I mean.

    I don’t mean the YEC types.

  25. As has been pointed out, Buddhists and Jews are both very into arguing about faith and very tolerant of people blaspheming

    You have to go into the history a little deeper. Jews did plenty of persecuting for blasphemy when they had the power to do so. They rioted when Romans put sculptures in the temple. Go back before the Romans were in control, and Samson was collecting the foreskins of blasphemers. And not through some surgical procedure.

    In Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is the state religion, they routinely attack Christians and Muslims.

    I don’t think any one religion’s followers are superior. It’s human nature to use power dynamics and justify your actions with moralistic motives.

  26. Yeah, hard-fucking-core is what I mean.

    I don’t mean the YEC types.

    Well, then, I concur. 😉 As the Nietzsche quote indicates, the more faithful seem to be better at taking this stuff with a grain of salt. Defensiveness is a sign of weakness of faith, rather than it’s opposite.

  27. Catholics are good at Apologetics in my experience.

    Fundamentalist Protestants? Not so much. It always comes down to TURN OR BURN!!

  28. Abdul —

    I would give them a pass for complaining that the Romans were fucking up their temple, but your other points are well-taken.

    It seems that people in power can’t help but use it, to the detriment of pretty much everyone else.

  29. Abdul —

    p.s. On balance, though, I’d say the history of the Jews and the Buddhists bear out they are generally better about it than the more evangelical faiths. There is also a *built-in* tolerance to argument if for no other reason than that law (for Jews) and metaphysics (for Buddhists) are central to understanding their faiths, two disciplines that practically invite disagreement.

  30. its kinda fucked up how abraham paved the way for the three most dangerous ideologies in human history.

    Abraham paved the way for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung? See, I learn something new here every day.

  31. RCD —

    Genghis Khan did better than those putzes, and his mommy was a Nestorian.

  32. club | August 21, 2008, 1:24pm | #
    its kinda fucked up how Abraham paved the way for the three most dangerous ideologies in human history. maybe Abraham was Satan?

    Not hardly, Fascism & Socialism have killed over 200 million. Care to try again?

  33. @R C Dean

    i would argue that combined, murder in the name of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is far greater then murder in the name of Nazism, fascism, and communism.

  34. Is there a Muslim Bishop Spong?

    This is a serious question.

    I’ve long thought that the War On Terror will not be won when we crush them into submission but when they start having “Chicken Soup for the Muslim Soul” showing up on Middle Eastern best seller lists and when there are Precious Moment figurines for sale at the local Muslim shops and they’re alongside keychains that affirm how many gods there are and who is the prophet for He/She/Them.

    But now I’m digressing.

  35. I guess letting Random House know how you feel is not a viable response to this. Better to masturbate here about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Yes I just sent off my inefectual missive to the House)Stop talking only – do something.

  36. Jaybird —

    A

  37. Wow, the link exploded. Try wiki’ing “liberal Muslim”. Good article.

  38. i would argue that combined, murder in the name of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is far greater then murder in the name of Nazism, fascism, and communism.

    And I would argue that, absent religion, mankind would have found other bases for fragmenting into separate cultures and fighting each other.

  39. i would argue that absent organized religion, man would have turned to meditation and plant teachers (plant shamanism) for spirituality and become far more enlightened and peaceful.

  40. Again, I give Random House some props for this. Not for dumping the book, but being honest as to why: We’re scared of these dangerous crackpots.

    They’re not giving us some candied line about cultural sensitivity and “responsibility”.

    By dropping Jones’ book, Random House is doing its part to engender Radical Islam’s perpetual adolescence and oppressive influence.

    Never truer words spoken.

    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.

    We’ll bravely publish it, after we see what these dangerous crackpots might do in Serbia.

  41. i would argue that absent organized religion, man would have turned to meditation and plant teachers (plant shamanism) for spirituality and become far more enlightened and peaceful.

    Tell that to them fungi shamans! Them blaspheming heathens deny that pea soup with chives and wormroot regenerates your soul! And they try to give us poison mushrooms at those interfaith conferences. Never trust a fun’us, I always seyz.

  42. LMNOP

    the more faithful seem to be better at taking this stuff with a grain of salt. Defensiveness is a sign of weakness of faith, rather than it’s opposite.

    I agree with your (and Nietzche’s) hypothesis via academic logic, but I’m not sure if I would find it universally true in practice.

    For instance do we really believe that Al Qaeda’s most fundamentalist extremists who readily capture and behead people have a weakness of faith? They have a weakness of something, to be sure, but faith? I’m not so sure. One could argue that their fear or weakness is that their nation-state has a weakness of faith- and is susceptible to ideological invasion from the secular West. Again, just like most politics and legislation- it’s about other people, not the leaders or the party faithful. They’re worried that their “children” are being corrupted. I, Al Qaeda member #3423 have an unshakable faith, but my neighbor? Not so sure. Better protect his faith by capturing an infidel and beheading him.

  43. Random House: Pussies. ‘Nuff said.

  44. The Jews have always been game for a good argument, and they along with the Buddhists *win* in this arena.

    Horse shit. Have you never read the Old Testament? The Vatican’s been on good behavior in this arena since the Hapsburgs told them to fuck off in 1648. Funny how that works — when you’re powerless you become much more tolerant.

  45. Tell that to them fungi shamans! Them blaspheming heathens deny that pea soup with chives and wormroot regenerates your soul! And they try to give us poison mushrooms at those interfaith conferences. Never trust a fun’us, I always seyz.

    Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FUNGUS!!

  46. Fuck Moses, fuck Christ, and fuck that other guy.

    You know whom I mean. Don’t make me say it.

  47. Q: Why do terroists blow up buildings?
    A: Because it works.

    Q: How do we stop them from blowing up buildings?
    A: Make blowing up buildings a losing strategy.

    Q: How do we make blowing up buildings a losing strategy?
    A: Live in tents?

  48. blasphemy and the punishment of apostasy are two of the most effective memes ever discovered for keeping your flock in place. But…if your flock doesnt like to change and adapt, then other flocks eventually get better at too many practical things. So, on balance, one could argue that even from a purely “power” perspective, this is not a good strategy on the part of the Muslims. But, one would be wrong to conclude that its therefore a completely useless strategy. On the contrary, it is remarkably effective at maintaining surface obedience to core principles of the group and that is not an insignificant plus. In the long run, its not so great, but a lot of people want to press for immediate advantage and in that struggle, blasphemy prosecutions are highly effective local tools…compare the conversion rate of Muslims to any other group and I am sure you will find that they very rarely publicly leave the community or challenge its orthodox beliefs.

  49. I’ve long thought that the War On Terror will not be won when we crush them into submission but when they start having “Chicken Soup for the Muslim Soul” showing up on Middle Eastern best seller lists and when there are Precious Moment figurines for sale at the local Muslim shops and they’re alongside keychains that affirm how many gods there are and who is the prophet for He/She/Them.

    Jaybird, you would be the most awesome Secretary of State ever!

  50. Paul —

    You made my arguments for me. If Islam is such a strong and compelling truth, then why should al-Qaeda member #3357 give a shit what his next door neighbor believes. Does he actually think that Islam is *weaker* (i.e. less convincing, not ordained to come out on top) than Western Materialism? He basically has to believe that, to act the way he does.

  51. Horse shit. Have you never read the Old Testament? The Vatican’s been on good behavior in this arena since the Hapsburgs told them to fuck off in 1648. Funny how that works — when you’re powerless you become much more tolerant.

    Yes I have. The people who lived at that time were living in very different conditions, and, it must be said, have traditions and attitudes that bear little resemblance to the Judaism that followed for the next two-and-a-half thousand years.

  52. Elemenope: Many people trace much of modern Christian religious tolerance back to the aftermath of the European religious wars. But I would argue that Christianity is inherently more tolerant than Islam, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s about 1,300 years older, and religions tend to lose their violent cult aspects with age.

    Also, while the Bible is said to be inspired by God, everyone knows it was written by many different hands, over many years, in numerous languages. This leaves much more room for interpretation than the Koran, written by one person, and said to be a direct copy of the one in Heaven (because God speaks medieval Arabic, don’tcha know). Not much room for interpretation there! So it’s much harder for a moderate/liberal Muslim to ignore some particular part of it.

  53. You would think that the conservative publishers would step up to the plate with this one. And where is Mary Matalin, now that we need her?

  54. Islam is the Scientology of the 6th century.

  55. The root of Islam is male insecurity. It’s why they keep their women in sacks.

  56. So it’s much harder for a moderate/liberal Muslim to ignore some particular part of it.

    Yet somehow the two Muslims down the hall from me find all sorts of ways to interpret the Koran in a manner that is far less violent than what you think the “correct” interpretation is.

  57. then why should al-Qaeda member #3357 give a shit what his next door neighbor believes.

    LMNOP:

    Good sir, do you mean to suggest that Al Qaeda member 3357 take on… libertarian sensibilities, a live-and-let-live attitude about the activities of his neighbors? If we can’t even engender that attitude in this country…

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/304644_highmaintenance22.html

    “I am probably the most progressive liberal person in the world and I am personally offended by the sign,” said Janet Stillman, executive director of the Wallingford Neighborhood Office. “It’s so blatant and so in your face.”

  58. did anyone see the lady from Bahrain running the 200m hurdles (i think) in the Olympics in a Burka tracksuit?

    That was fucking comedy gold.

  59. “Samson was collecting the foreskins of blasphemers. And not through some surgical procedure.”

    Are you implying he nibbled them off?

  60. “Fuck Moses, fuck Christ, and fuck that other guy.

    You know whom I mean. Don’t make me say it.”

    So you’re gay then?

  61. Islam? Well… do they have any serious criticism? From within, I mean.

    If one were to critique and analyze the Koran, to a believer you would be critiquing the litereal word of God (since God spoke directly to Mohammaed), thereby putting yourself on plane equal to God (in the eyes of a believer).

    For this reason, there is not a lot of criticism within Islam.

  62. RH made a simple business decision. Nobody has a right to be published.

  63. Thoreau, I said “harder,” not “impossible.” Of course there are some Muslims who will interpret the Koran in various non-standard ways, but theologically/culturally it’s much harder, and thus much more rare, than variant interpretations of the Bible.

  64. To sum up, I think that regardless of the way some guys we know interpret the Koran, we can look at deeply Islamic countries and probably conclude, reasonably, that the teachings of the Koran my come into play with their cultural state. May come into play.

  65. Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FUNGUS!!

    Shrooms are a manifestation of the primordial evil, which is why Fungi Shamans have a special affinity for Psilocybin. Us plant shamans just stick to Marijuana, as it is pure and wholesome and doesn’t make one crazy like that Fungus Shaman. So remember that fungus is bad and your essence will remain untained, otherwise you are an evil heathen and I shall be forced to kill you.

  66. Naga Sadow | August 21, 2008, 1:20pm | #

    I think some on this thread are missing a valuable point. If Libertarians start rioting and/or blowing up buildings and people over “objectionable” representations of capitalism then we can get favourable treatment from the media. Huddle up and give it a thought.

    True, but I still don’t think it would be worth it. First, I object to it morally. Second, when violence brings on political change, momentum tends to keep the bloodshed going, making it very difficult to maintain a functioning society. Still, it’s worth noting that everyone from anarchists to communists to theists have tried to change the world with bombs in one decade or another. Whenever enough people make decisions out of fear, the fitness benifit of being violent increases. Today’s Muslim terror movements are more the result of past capitulations than of any lines in the Koran. Social niches get filled, and given time, almost any philosophy will adjust to fill them.

  67. ………….. | August 21, 2008, 4:16pm | #

    RH made a simple business decision. Nobody has a right to be published.

    True, and in fairness to Random House, I haven’t bought a printing press and offered to publish the book. What makes this case alarming is the reasons publishing companies refused to publish the book. The US is a bastion of free speech. If fear of litigation or riots chips away at that, the results will be chilling.

  68. I think it’s good that all these publishers let us know about their cowardice. That way, the next Anne Frank will at least know which doors not to bother knocking on when she’s looking for sanctuary, if things ever get that bad again.

  69. in fairness to Random House, I haven’t bought a printing press and offered to publish the book.

    You can make a stand more cheaply than that. All you have to do is commit to downloading all the Random House titles you desire from filesharing sites from now on and you’ve struck the crucial blow.

    They deserve it. If pressed, your excuse can be that you were afraid to buy their books for fear of personal reprisal from angry free speech activists.

  70. Doesn’t Reason have a publishing unit? And aren’t there other libertarian leaning publishing companies? Better not to self-publish though. That’s usually the kiss of death. You might get 500 people to read it.

  71. This is sad, pathetic, tragic. If we bow in “fear” of a group of individuals who twist the tenets of a religion to fit their radical and violent means, then we have lost the battle. I recently watched a great film – “Obsession” – that discusses these issues, and incidents of cowardice such as this really reaffirm the need for a strong stand against those who cower in fear of supposed “retribution” whenever Islam is criticized.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.