WASHINGTONGibson Square, a British publishing house, has announced that it will soon release The Jewel of Medina, a novel by American author Sherry Jones whose publication in the United States was recently canceled by Random House for fear of triggering violence by Islamic fanatics. Bravo.
The novel fictionalizes the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his youngest bride, Aisha. After paying the author a significant advance and making plans for the release of the book, Random House sent copies of the galleys to various scholars, some of whom told the publisher that the content distorted history, would inflame Muslims and could cause much trouble. Security experts were also consulted. Random House decided to cancel publication of Jones work, invoking reasons of safety.
Certainly this was not a case of censorship: no one has a right to be published by anyone else. But insofar as the business decision of the publisher was dictated by fear of retribution arising from past examples of reprisals against people perceived to have denigrated Islam, the implications went beyond the contractual relationship between Random House and Jones. Any time, any place in which the threat of violence inhibits the exercise of free expression, the imperfect freedoms of Western civilization that so many people around the world struggle to imitate are in danger. Which is why the implications of the British publishers audacious decision to print The Jewel of Medina also go beyond the contract between Gibson Square and Jones.
The books contentwhich has been described, promisingly, as being full of sex and violenceis irrelevant to the discussion. It may well be, as one scholar who read it contends, that The Jewel of Medina is pure trash. And in any case, a book of historical fiction should never be judged on its accuracy. Great novels such as Tolstoys War and Peace, Victor Hugos The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Marguerite Yourcenars Memoirs of Hadrian are all inaccurate. So are bad historical novels.
It is true that a naughty novel about Muhammad has the potential to inflame passions. Salman Rushdies The Satanic Verses, one of his least interesting creations, earned him a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. I remember asking Rushdie, whom I interviewed in hiding when The Moors Last Sigh came out, if he had reconsidered some of his leftist positions against those who stood firmly for the freedoms of the West. He had. The Indian author added that those values are only Western in the sense that the West is where they developed, but that their validity is universal.
Some distributors of The Satanic Verses were killed by Muslim fanatics. Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in 2004 for Submission, a 10-minute documentary on the oppression of women in Islamic societies. When in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of Muhammad, Danish embassies were attacked in various countries; dozens of people died in the protests.
Any responsible publishing house would, of course, take all of this into account. And it has the right to do what it pleases with any manuscript that it receiveseven the right to change its mind about it. The problem is not whether Random House was entitled to its decision, but what the decision to go against its own desire to publish the book tells us about the fear that fanaticism has instilled in Western countries through systematic acts of intolerance.
Many people in the West misunderstand what freedom of expression means. They associate it with the restriction on the power of the government to interfere with the freedom to express oneself. It is really a restriction on the power of anyone to interfere with anyone elses right to free expression, including but not limited to the government. If a business decision is made under extreme feardirectly or indirectly caused by force from a third person rather than the governmentfreedom of expression also suffers.
I am not interested in the reasons why Gibson Square has decided to publish the bookwhether opportunism, greed, love of scandal, a dislike of the prophet, or a belief in the merits of the novel. But the fact that someone, somewhere, is willing to run the risk of not letting the threat of violence inhibit free expression is tremendously comforting