Fearing Muslim backlash, Random House scraps novel

Nearly three years ago, Iraq held historic parliamentary electionsMillions of Iraqi voters shrugged off the threat of Al-Qaida suicide bombers and pro-Saddam reactionaries. They headed to the polls in heavy number, proving their courage and commitment to democratic values.

Sadly, both qualities were absent in Random House's decision last May to cancel publication of "The Jewel of Medina," a novel by journalist Sherry Jones.  Egged on by a politically correct professor of Islamic studies, publishing executives feared the novel could provoke the kind of  violent backlash among Muslims that was touched off by Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel "Satanic Verses." And they nervously recalled the Danish "cartoon riots" in Europe and the Muslim world, too. 

The full story of Random House's cowardly self-censorship -- a story of how "fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world" -- was the subject of a Wednesday Op-Ed column in the Wall Street Journal by Asra Q. Nomani, the noted Muslim journalist and author. In her column, Nomani described a depressing story of intellectual cowardice and academic perfidy among members of America's intellectual elite. Jones' canceled novel focuses on Aisha, a young wife of the prophet Muhammad. Some of the novel's scenes are described as being "racy" in the tradition of the controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis;" the film portrays Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a married couple consummating their union. In her column, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," Nomani related:

Random House feared the book would become a new "Satanic Verses," the Salman Rushdie novel of 1988 that led to death threats, riots and the murder of the book's Japanese translator, among other horrors. In an interview about Ms. Jones's novel, Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it "disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now." He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received "from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

Who was the source for this ominous warning?

It was a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Texas in Austin, Denise Spellberg, whom Jones had innocently thought might write a blub for the book. Instead, the professor hated it. She regarded it as an "ugly, stupid piece of work"---  one that "made fun of Muslims and their history," according to Nomani's account. Indeed, the professor thought the book could prove to be a "declaration of war...a national security issue" much worse than the violence provoked by the "Satanic Verses" and Danish "cartoon riots".

Nomani reveals a bit about Prof. Spellberg's academic background. But the most revealing profile of her may be found at  her own webpage at the University of Texas. Not surprisingly, she earned her PhD in Islamic Studies from Columbia University in New York City -- a place where radical leftists and advocates of the pro-Palestinian cause (including the late Prof. Edward Said), have for years gotten a warm welcome. Among her recent publications: "Inventing Matamoras: Gender and the Forgotten Islamic Past in the United States of America."

Spellberg recalled going to the "Last Temptation of Christ," released in 1988. She was quoted as saying: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ.' I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."

That's funny. I went to "Last Temptation of Christ," too. But there were no metal dictators at the theater in southwestern Connecticut where I saw the film. But I do recall standing in a long line on a chilly and drizzly evening. Near the theater door, movie-goers walked past a polite and gentle Baptist minister. He was obviously outraged by the film. Yet he wished me and other movie-goers well. He handed me some literature that he said I might want to read. As much as I disagreed with him, I could not help but respect him. He had quiet dignity. There was no anger in his voice or demeanor.

Now that Iraq is becoming increasingly calm, perhaps Prof. Spellberg and Random House's editors should visit Iraq and talk with ordinary Iraqis. If they learn nothing from their courage and convictions, perhaps they will at least become aware of their own perfidy and cowardice -- and feel shamed.

Then again, maybe they'll see only want they want to see.