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City of Brass

City of Brass

The Jewel of Medina: manufactured outrage

If you haven’t heard of this brouhaha, in a nutshell a (non-muslim) author wrote a book about Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Mohammed SAW, entitled The Jewel of Medina. A (non-muslim) University of Texas professor was invited to comment by the publisher, and observed that the contents of the book were being misrepresented as a scholarly look at Aisha’s life, and might be offensive to some muslims’ sensibilities because of its graphic content. The publisher, Random House, decided to yank the book, citing potential (not actual) violence by muslim extremists. For more details, see Talk Islam’s coverage and vigorous discussion.

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Naturally, the reaction has been the same cries of censorship and dhimmitude, where muslims are cast as implacable opponents to Western ideals of free speech and religious tolerance. But what is so bizarre about this whole affair is how it has very little to do with muslims and instead has everything to do with the idea of muslims in the non-muslim mind. That idealized muslim is an automaton, reacting to stimuli in a predetermined way. It’s insulting and condescending.

It is important to note that there has been no “muslim outrage” over Jewel of Medina whatsoever. No muslims have in fact made any death threats to author Sherry Jones or proposed any kind of action, violent or otherwise, directed at Random House. In fact, the discussion of the book by muslims has largely affirmed the author’s right to write about the Prophet, and criticized the decision by Random House.

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It must be noted that Sherry Jones herself sought to write a novel that was sympathetic to the Prophet SAW. This sets it apart from the Danish cartoons, whose sole purpose was to provoke a reaction rather than any genuine artistic statement. Pulling this book from publication, and blaming that decision on extremist threats, does no favors to the mainstream muslim community, and actually tarnishes us for something we did not do (and something we would not do).

The cries of censorship also do no favors to the genuine cause of free speech. Random House’s claims of violent muslim backlash are simply not credible – note that RH continues to publish the Satanic Verses to this day. What is more likely is that the book was pulled because it is a tawdry soap opera with no historical authenticity (even the claim that Aisha was a child bride is a matter of debate, not concensus, by Islamic scholars).  Salman Rushdie predictably interjected himself into the debate, calling the decision by RH “the censorship of fear” – but as Stanley Fish points out in the New York Times, it was more an exercise of editorial judgement. Random House saw a hypothetical muslim backlash as a convenient excuse to hang their business decision upon, and they were absolved of the moral blame.

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I support the free speech rights of Sherry Jones to write her book – but I do not think that her book has any inherent right to be published. I also assert that the right of free speech goes both ways – meaning that I too have the right to critique the book in a civil fashion. In fact I look forward to the book’s (inevitable) publication, because I plan on exercising that right vigorously.

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