City of Brass

City of Brass

Random House gets slapped

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I think that Random House’s claim to have pulled the Jewel of Medina over concerns about violence are simply not credible – and rather cowardly, to hide behind the hypothetical muslim horde. If perhaps they thought they could get away by playing the victim card, though, they were mistaken – the scions of free speech have roused themselves in fury over RH’s betrayal of free speech values. First, it was Salman Rushdie decrying censorship where none existed, now it is a group called the Langum Charitable Trust which has issued a press release stating that Random House’s books will no longer be considered for any of the literary awards that the trust hands out in various categories. I was forwarded the text of the release via email:

August 25, 2008:

Random House and Cowardly Self-Censorship

Random House recently dropped its plans to publish Sherry Jones’s book The Jewel of Medina solely on the grounds that its publication might be offensive to some in the Muslim community and might lead to acts of violence by radical Muslims. While any publisher has the right if not the duty to refuse to publish books that lack literary merit, Random House had previously decided this manuscript was highly publishable. It paid a $100,000 advance, and had arranged for foreign publication, Book of the Month Club selection, and Quality Paperback Book Club selection.

All that triggered Random House’s repudiation of its promise was the receipt of some fairly slight information that there might be violence. Serious ideas, even if offensive to some, flourish in books. Random House has exhibited a degree of cowardly self-censorship that seriously threatens the American public’s access to the free marketplace of ideas.

While this manuscript is not in any of our prize areas, Random House’s actions represent a threat to all literature. We understand that the author’s agent is attempting to find another publisher. Meanwhile, we can not pretend that this type of cowardice will disappear without serious remonstrance. Until The Jewel of Medina is actually published, The Langum Charitable Trust will not consider submissions of any books, for any of our prizes, from Random House or any of its affiliates. We do this reluctantly, since our most recent prize in American historical fiction went to a Random House title. Nevertheless, this issue must be confronted.

It is regrettable that with our national Banned Books Week only one month away, we still must concern ourselves with these issues.

Of course, Jewel of Medina is not a “banned book” nor is RH’s refusal to publish the book tantamount to censorship of any kind. However, I agree with the Langham Trust that RH’s actions were cowardly. Any pressure upon RH that induces them to rethink their decision – or at least, dissuade other publishers from doing the same thing with respect to books about Islam – is a good thing.

Remembering Mohammed Mosaddeq

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Mosaddeq was the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, a political moderate who was overthrown from power in a CIA-directed coup, after daring to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. Al Ahram Weekly tells the story, and points out how our modern policy towards Iran remains hobbled by those events, over five decades ago.

Incidentally, the single best book I’ve read about Iran is Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.

There
were a lot of things about Iran’s pre-Revolutionary history that I
wasn’t aware of, misconceptions about why the Revolution happened, a
mistaken understanding of the Shah’s rule, the war with Iraq, etc. This
book did a lot to help me sort out this essential historical context,
and provided a great narrative to boot. Even though it’s fiction, and a
comic book, its almost mandatory reading for anyone desiring to
understand or comment on present-day foreign policy with Iran.

Related – my delicious bookmarks about Iran.

child abuse

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I am pleased to see that Mr. Syed Mustafa Zaidi of Manchester, UK has been found guilty of child abuse. Zaidi, a Shi’a muslim, forced two young boys to participate in a ritual self-flogging exercise during the holy month of Ashura, in which Shi’a lament the martyrdom of Imam Husain AS, the grandson of the Prophet SAW. This act of self-flogging is an extreme one, only observed by a tiny fraction of Shi’a muslims, and even Zaidi’s own religious community expressly forbade boys younger than 16 to take part in the ceremony. That has not stopped Mr. Zaidi from (predictably) claiming that this is an issue of religious expression and a necessary act of faith.

The issue is notable because it serves to highlight the necessity of governmental oversight of
religious practice. Not to define what religious practices are
“correct” or not, but rather to simply be blind to religion when
evaluating issues against the law. The question of whether
self-flagellation is an authentic Islamic or Shi’a practice is a
(bloody) red herring – the question is simply whether the actions
violated Law. And they did, so Mr. Zaidi deserved to be prosecuted
accordingly. Bringing this issue into the domain of religious freedom
only serves to cloud the issue, and taint the entire muslim community,
Sunni and Shi’a alike.

(see related discussions at Talk Islam and at Deenport)

The Jewel of Medina: manufactured outrage

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

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.

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.

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.

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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