Cue Radical Backlash to Religious-Themed Fiction in 5, 4, 3, 2…



Late Friday night, the north London home/office of Martin Rynja, publisher of the independent UK press Gibson Square, was firebombed in what is being treated as a terrorist attack, of which police had advance warning, which is how they were able to warn Rynja to leave the premises for his own safety, stake out the building, and arrest three men shortly after the house was bombed; the small fire it created was quickly put out. (A fourth arrest was made later in the day.) Gibson Square is the UK publisher of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones's controversial novel about A'isha, one of the wives of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, which was dropped by Random House after Islamic studies professor Denise Spellberg warned the publisher the book would incite violence by Muslim extremists (after which she did everything she could to make sure those potential terrorists knew the book was coming).

Read the whole thing at GalleyCat, which has done a phenomenal job tracking the myriad trials and tribulations of historical pop lit. author Sherry Jones. Since losing her contract with Random House, Jones has pinned much of the blame for her book's ups and downs on Denise Spellberg, a professor at UT-Austin. In her efforts to dissuade anyone from publising Jewel, Spellberg has argued that it "use[s] sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith," and called it "soft core pornography." But Jones is either naive or scrambling to deflect attention by arguing that pejorative labels are the culprit here, or that all would be well if only radicals could read her book:

"The planting of that bomb is Martin Rynja's letterbox was not about my book," Jones said, noting that the novel was not yet available in Britain. "It's not about the content of my book. It's not about the ideas in my book. It must be about the rumors and innuendos….I feel that the people who resorted to violence are responsible," Jones emphasized. "But her use of the word 'pornography' has done nothing to help the situation."

Despite her incendiary criticisms, Spellberg is a periphery figure in this case. Neither she, nor any other prominent pro-Islam critic of The Jewel of Medina (or any similar media), is responsible (or ethically liable) for an act of terrorism simply for having predicted it. And as disheartening as it may be to hear a Western academic rationalize—or even defend—terrorism in response to art, especially when radical leaders are responding with an "I-told-you-so" smugness, we shouldn't be surprised. The reactions that followed the Jyllands-Posten cartoons established that violence, not intellectual outrage or artistic rebuttals, is the means with which extremists are most likely to react to objectionable representations of Mohammed. And we've known for a while, at least since 9/11, that it's only a matter of time before some finger-wagging academic announces that the only way to deal with said extremists is to appease them.

While Random House may have acted differently if Spellberg had supported the book's publication, it's unlikely that Islamic radicals would have looked the other way simply because an American female academic gave Jewel two historically-correct thumbs up. Not that Spellberg's retraction matters. The Telegraph reports that clerics in London predict more attacks:

But the radical cleric Anjem Choudhary, who lives in Ilford, east London, said he was "not surprised at all" by the attack and warned of possible further reprisals over the book

"It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty," he said.

"People should be aware of the consequences they might face when producing material like this. They should know the depth of feeling it might provoke."

I'm interested to see how England's moderate Muslims will react to this news, and whether or not this will spark a more comprehensive (and hopefully, intelligent) conversation about cultural assimilation in Western Europe. And while I'm still opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems about time to abandon the assertion that withdrawing American troops from the Middle East is a long-term solution to Islamic extremism.

Lastly, I bet someone at Random House breathed a great big sigh of relief after hearing this news.