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The Last Taboo

Apparently there's a hot new taboo out there in the publishing industry: Muhammad. In this disturbing Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Asra Q. Nomani describes how concern over possible offense to Muslims and fear of terrorist threats led Ballantine to cancel the publication of Sherry Jones's debut novel THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, "a tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet Muhammed's harem."

Nomani's article traces the trouble back to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, who, after receiving a galley of the book in April, made a "frantic" phone call to Shahed Amanullah, the editor of a popular Muslim website. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.

Let me get this straight. This is an American academic, teaching at an institution of higher learning in what is supposed to be the land of free speech, issuing a warning to a religious group about a novel? Her problem with the book? Apparently, she doesn't like the fact that Muhammad is portrayed as a sexual being. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction," Nomani quotes Spellberg as saying. "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."

Really? I thought the very nature of fiction is that one can do whatever one wants in service of the story. Readers and critics may love it, hate it, or dismiss it entirely, but the fiction writer is under no legal or even moral obligation to treat history factually. I especially bristle at Spellberg's use of the word can't. Under what authority does she decide that censorship is right and proper, and that a writer does not have the right to choose her own story, her own characters, her own fictional version of events?

Spellberg is engaging in the worst kind of censorship: fear-mongering. Muslims no more need to be warned about this book than Christians needed to be warned about The Last Temptation of Christ (which Spellberg admits to seeing). For the rest of the story, which involves Spellberg's warning spreading like wildfire across the blogosphere, with titles like "A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam," and Spellberg's warning to her own publisher, Knopf, that THE JEWEL OF MEDINA is tantamount to a "declaration of war," read Nomani's article.

This saga upsets me as a Muslim, Nomani writes, and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way. "I'm devastated," Ms. Jones told me after the book got spiked, adding, "I wanted to honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored -- silenced -- by historians."

This is sobering stuff. If a radical anti-abortion group makes threats about a novel in which a character gets an abortion, will that novel be canceled too? I guess the only light at the end of the tunnel is that Jones, who received a modest $100,000 advance for a two-book deal, will now probably be raking in the cash when the next publisher decides to take on THE JEWEL OF MEDINA. Spellberg's reactionary approach has instantly turned what might have been a small, quickly-forgotten mid-list book into a major publicity machine.

2 Comment count
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This is dismaying. . .but it

This is dismaying. . .but it doesn't surprise me.

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I will be surprised if hype revives that book.

It requires the media to cover the story in a big way and show outrage at a publisher pulling a book because of voiced objections that turn on what was felt to be a threatened fatwa. Given the reprecussions of the Dutch cartoon scandel, I bet everyone turns their heads and gets a cup of coffee. Unless Christopher Hitchens or someone with some clout forces people to step up this is the last you year of that book till it comes out via iUniverse.