Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fear and Censorship

The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.
Asra Q. Nomani in the Asian Wall Street Journal examines a particularly worrying case of censorship.

Publisher Random House's decided to pull the plug on historical romance The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones (for which it had paid an advance of $100,000) after it received cautionary advice came from University of Texas Professor Denise Spellberg that it could :
... incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.
Nomani says :
This saga upsets me as a Muslim -- and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way. ... Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as "The Adventures of Amir Hamza," an epic on the life of Muhammad's uncle.
Jones said that she was devastated after the book got spiked:
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.
Geoffrey Robertson QC,who acted for Rushdie in the Satanic Verses case calls for compensation in the Guardian and says :
We can't be overcritical of American publishers for cowering under terrorist threats. ... all who care about free speech have a duty to make this sort of censorship counterproductive. Random House should pay this author substantial compensation, and the book should be placed on a website so everyone can read it.
Ah well, let's start with the Prologue to the novel which you can find here.

And there's another intriguing "is it censorship, or isn't it?" case in the Guardian today. Max Malik (left), claims that his novel The Butterfly Hunter was not submitted for final adjudication of the Muslim Writers award because of its controversial subject matter.

He was told that his novel had been dropped off the list "in error". Something that I find hard to believe given that he won top prize in the award last year! (Or if it was a genuine mistake, it indicates mindblowing incompetence!)


Greenbottle said...

the professor said...i don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with a deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into a soft core pornography...

based on this description of the of the novel (and as a muslim who have the deepest respect for our prophet Muhammad ) i'm feeling very very angry already.

why this bitch chooses to make fun of MY religion , a religion which she doesn't profess is beyond me...why don't this bith go and write something about other religions that are "more tolerant" to this kinds of crap?

I'm deeply offended by this and i won't be unhappy if some extremist go and rape this bitch and cut her into little pieces and feed to the dogs....

Anonymous said...

Maybe Random House dropped it because the writing is so bad! I read the prologue - yikes!!! It's laughable!!!

Greenbottle said...

i'm in the airport tapping this and on my way to beijing to watch the i can't have too much pissing contest here...

but i'll say this.

of course god is above everything...but you have NO right to shit on buddha's statue or piss on jesus or mary icons etc...and what this bitch has done is tantamount to the same thing view of muslims like myself...

and i'm not going to waste ten minutes of my time to read this damned trash ...seems like it's more suited to danielle steele and babra cartland brigade...and i've never even heard of this bitch before.

and i put a lot more weight on this professor's comment than whatever this damned bitch has to say...

bibliobibuli said...

sorry greenbottle, i took down what i wrote earlier. i thought it best to let everyone else have their say before i jump in again, and i could feel myself getting angry with what you wrote more for its tone than for the viewpoint. you come across as being terribly ... rabid.

have a good time at the olympics and don't blow anybody up, hey!

Jordan said...

So let's see. On the one hand, there's the writer, who is exercising the freedom of expression writers everywhere should enjoy but should have put more thought into whether people would get offended (after reading the prologue, I think it's safe to say people will indeed be offended). She writes like she knows about the religion and could almost get away with saying she respects it, but if she really did then she wouldn't have written it in the first place.

On the other hand, we have this greenbottle character, all full of piss and vinegar and, like far too many Muslims, too thin-skinned to have a reaction more mature than "i won't be unhappy if some extremist go and rape this bitch and cut her into little pieces and feed to the dogs."

Thus we have the problem facing Islam these days: it faces a two-pronged assault, from ignorant non-Muslims who see it as backwards, and ignorant Muslims apparently hellbent on proving them right. Makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

The issue has actually been rehashed at SBTB site ( Initial News / Prologue DIscussion / Spellberg's Response )

What is most annoying is that people are jumping to conclusions that Muslims are actually already threatening the books even though it was just still a possibility raised by Spellberg.

You see some Muslims there patiently trying to explain why the book was considered offensive but they never actually said the book should be banned. Instead because the other commenter heard it may cause some protest from Muslim, they automatically assume it's a Terrorist threat that caused the book to pulled back (and note the book was only pulled back from Random House not the publishing scene).
So the ultimate issue is , after getting feedback from 3 other experts, Random House is the one that felt the book is offensive enough to be pulled back.

The comment also included link to Shahed Amanullah’s editorial and I'll quote what one other commentor quoted
Watching this exchange over time has taught me that the best response to free speech is simply more speech in return. Anyone should have the right to publish whatever they want about Islam or Muslims - even if their views are offensive - without fear of censorship or retribution. Muslims, however, shouldn’t be expected to be passive consumers of these views. An offended Muslim has the right - indeed, the responsibility - to vigorously critique anything written about them or their religion, provided they do not cross the line into intimidation and coercion. In an ideal world, both parties would open their minds enough to understand the other point of view.

Anonymous said...

hear, hear jordan!

vovin said...

Oh dear, here we go again...

Anonymous said...

Green Bottle,try this, open up your mind beyond the confines of self righteousness and a closed mind. Why do you feel so threatened? Is Islam that weak? When will so called muslims like you ever learned that nobody owns the truth. What you wished for that author defines your kind of spirituality. But I doubt you even know what it is.

Greenbottle said...

dear anonymous ...

i'm not feeling threathened the least bit...but i take offence when i feel that people are insulting me and my religion...

now try this...

supposing some writer , a fiction writer were to write a novel with this plot line:...

there was once a woman named mary who was raped by a centurion and gave birth to a bastard son who was in turn became so repressed and loony that he thought of himself as god etc etc...he claimed that he was the one and only son of god and for a son of god he was so stupid that he got lost in the dessert and betrayed by his own gang members and this god who looked ironically like charles darwin is so retarded that he allowed his one and only son to be crucifed on the cross...etc etc...

would you like that huh...

i think if this writer were to publish that kind of fiction in the deep bible belt of america he would be tarred and feathered before he can say jehovah... see, i never start anything, muslims never start any thing...i'm merely reacting to a deeply offensive act from people who ought to know better.

and, i have absolutely no problem with respectful criticism of my religion...there are countless books critical of islam by orientalists since the beinning of islam..and i took no offence with these.

what i can not stand and tolerate is this gratuitous and irresponsible writings that are neither meant to be a responsible and respectful criticism nor a balanced historical study...

the only aim of this kind of writings is just to be scandalous .

Anonymous said...

Well if you deem it "gratuitous and irresponsible" and "scandalous" writing,why are you so heat up in the first place? You have given the author more power than she deserves. You only feel insulted if you allow yourself to feel so. Hmm, your story has no effect on me, am neither a xtian either. It just help reveal your attitude further- its an eye for an eye
thingy for you huh.

Anonymous said...

"you see, i never start anything, muslims never start any thing."

If so, please be a good Muslim and refrain from using foul language in this comment box.

You are setting a bad example for young people who visit this blog.

You adhere to Islam, which you claim is sacred and holy. That's good. But do practice what you preach. You can start by controlling your words.

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - there have been some takes on the story of jesus which christians have felt deeply offensive e.g. monty python's life of brian, a comedy satire which was widely protested. i'm sure you can think of other examples.

such protests are within the protesters rights - after all, you cannot have freedom of speech one way, without allowing it the other!

Thus we have the problem facing Islam these days: it faces a two-pronged assault, from ignorant non-Muslims who see it as backwards, and ignorant Muslims apparently hellbent on proving them right.

you've said that very well, Jordan

anon at 4:54 - thanks a lot for the links, i had found the blog posts but not yet read the comments which are very interesting indeed.

Watching this exchange over time has taught me that the best response to free speech is simply more speech in return.

really do agree, and that is a very good quote

apologies if this topic seems rehashed now that the lively discussion on the SBTB site has died down but i felt that this was a useful issue to debate here - esp as this blog attracts a lot of muslim readers and i think the discussion v. relevant

vovin - yes, here we go again and this debate isn't going away any time soon. but i think it is good to discuss these issues regarding freedom of speech and censorship.

i am always a little afraid when i open up a can of worms like this, because i know how heated things can get.

i must confess though i feel v. sorry for ms jones who worked hard on a novel (and i feel from what i've read, with genuine intentions) to see it withdrawn. i do agree that she deserves compensation and hope she gets it ...

Anonymous said...

"supposing some writer , a fiction writer were to write a novel with this plot line:..."

As Sharon pointed out, there are heaps of fictional works being produced all the time which are offensive to Christians.

Everything from The Life of Brian to The Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code to The Gospel of Judas.

"i think if this writer were to publish that kind of fiction in the deep bible belt of america he would be tarred and feathered before he can say jehovah..."

No piece of fiction, no matter how offensive, has drawn violence in the Bible Belt like The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons have done in the Muslim world.

"I'm deeply offended by this and i won't be unhappy if some extremist go and rape this bitch and cut her into little pieces and feed to the dogs...."

The heart of the issue is this: most Muslims are insecure, powerless and exploited.

They are exploited by a combination of corrupt leaders, archaic traditions, colonialism, and Western expansion.

It certainly is a hard pill to swallow -- Islam was once the impetus behind a great and progressive civilisation, but is now treated like the black sheep of world religions.

Rightly or wrongly, Muslims like greenbottle are quick to condone vengeance. There is a very real sense that making a mockery of Islam will cause their already-desperate world to collapse.

Contrast this with Christianity, which is smug and secure in its identity.

The world's largest superpower crudely wields it as a badge of honor, and most of the world's developed countries were built on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Making even 100 mockeries of Jesus Christ isn't likely to cause Western civilisation to collapse any time soon.

That's why book burnings and religious decrees to kill authors like Dan Brown are not the norm.

Oh, not because Christianity is the better religion. But simply because Christians are so arrogantly self-assured in their identity.

So, my personal belief is that if Muslims are going to be sensitive and defensive, then they are probably not ready for the ideal of free speech.

Remember the old adage? I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

I'm afraid the state of Islam today is so weak and fragile, it cannot stand sort of test.

Jordan said...

There's an interesting article about all this here. The writer makes some strange claims which I think I may have to take up in a blog post of my own (don't want to hijack your blog, dear Sharon). But it is interesting, because one thing he gets right is that free speech is important and Muslims need to suck it up if they're ever going to progress.

One of the comments after the article begins with an ignorant, all-too-often-seen statement about Islam preaching jihad against non-Muslims, but the same commenter manages to make an excellent point afterwards about how the problem is Muslims' "natural reluctance to engage with fanatics who are all to ready to raise the stakes higher and higher."

Anonymous said...

Greenbottle, people HAVE done that. Have you seen "Jesus of Nazareth"? lots of people saw that movie, but I don't recall anyone threatening the producer over anything.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and interestingly enough, greenbottle managed to insult his own prophet? did you just say that Nabi Isa (which is what Jesus is called in the Quran) was a repressed and loony bastard ?

"i take offence when i feel that people are insulting me and my religion..."

But you seem to insult your own religion just fine. How about that.

vovin said...

Hello Sharon,

Yes, it is good to discuss these issues regarding freedom of speech and censorship. Just hope we can have a constructive discussion. Freedon of speech also is a very tricky topic depending on the person point of view, IMHO.

My expression "here we go again" actually for my frustration because i think everyday i came across some issues regarding religion indeference and i think it will never stop. Until, at least, i die.

Both side got opinion, both side believe in their opinion, just wish we can reach certain amount of understanding.

Oh well, maybe i'm the naive one. Forget what i say...

Anonymous said...


Greenbottle is entitled to make fun of Nabi Isa. It is, after all, his own religion. But it's be wrong if outsiders do it. That's something to digest.

On a different note, religion does tend to encourage two extremes in believers -- extreme passivity or extreme aggression.

If Greenbottle is behaving in a way that is foul, you can't really blame him.

bibliobibuli said...

no, vovin, you're not naive and yes these discussion will keep going on without any final resolution, but i think it's far better that the discussion happens than that it doesn't. my first reaction to the story was "here we go aagain too"!

Anonymous said...

The true measure of a man is how he reacts when faced with something he doesn't agree with.

By that measure, well, Greenbottle doesn't measure up at all.

Yusuf/Martin said...

While applauding Ms Jones for attempting to write the novel she has, I have to say that it is always dangerous stepping into unknown territory, and as I imagine Ms Jones is a non-Muslim a brave though perhaps foolhardy thing to do, unless it was a ploy to gain fame and recognition.

Having read the prologue I am not impressed with the novel, the first few paragraphs give a feel to the book and the feeling is clumsy. Ms Jones demonstrates that she is neither familiar nor comfortable with the society she is writing about, and makes a few glaring errors - such as referring to Allah, or Al Lah simply as al Lah the lower case simply referring to a god any god (“Thank al-Lah you have made it home safely, my A’isha,” he murmured.)whereby in the context the reference should be to The God, the ONLY God Al Lah or Allah.

I have no problem with the novel apart from its clumsiness - maybe the author needs to spend more time with Muslims.

Yusuf/Martin said...


Sharon I am surprised that you still allow anonymous comments - personally my take is if you feel strongly enough to write them you should 'own' what you write instead of hiding.

bibliobibuli said...

i agree with you that it's v. annoying when folks don't own their comments even with a pseudonym.

but i found that a lot of people wanted to comment but were shy or found it difficult to sign into blogger, so i never insisted. it's more a point of good manners.

i don't generally censor the comments either except for spam which annoys the hell out of me.

Yusuf/Martin said...

fair comment.

Anonymous said...

yusuf/martin, if all people can be as eloquent and restrained as you, then there would be no need to remain anonymous.

Unfortunately, I see no point in revealing my identity when I am confronted with people who go: "i won't be unhappy if some extremist go and rape this bitch and cut her into little pieces and feed to the dogs...."

That, to be frank, is vile and it frightens me.

Yusuf/Martin said...

Dear Anonymous
firstly thank you, and yes I have heard this argument before and to some extent sympathise. I did however say that it was a personal feeling.

I prefer to answer and have comments by real people rather than anon.

One of my reasons is this....
I posted some opposition to a particularly nasty and I believed racist song by a well known British folk singer, and was attacked practically by death threats from an anonymous person.

This person tracked be down to one of my blogs and as anonymous attacked some of my comments there about Muslims being used as scapegoats.

From that day forward I have not allowed anonymous comments on my blogs.

Use an alias by all means. But there can be many anons and it is often confusing which is which
but I do understand your reasons.

bibliobibuli said...

i understand your fears, yusof. that sounds like a v. nasty attack.

my worst blog attacker wasn't anonymous and caused me much grief.

i sometimes can tell which anon it is by the style (and there's always the IP).

linguisome said...

Professor Spellberg, who may be knowledgeable about Islam and its history, seemed to me to have been quite an alarmist. The book may be controversial and could cause some trouble, but not all Muslims are easily provoked, and I'm sure Muslims can spot a good piece of literature and appreciate it. Whether or not this book will make that category remains to be seen since it hasn't even been published.

linguisome said...

The book is, nevertheless, a fiction loosely based on history, and history, as we sometimes know it, have been told by different people from different point of views. Even Hirsi Ali's controversial 'Infidel' to me doesn't seem that offensive. It's simply a person telling a story, yeah.