Making news at the moment is Random House’s cancellation of the release of a book on the life of Aisha, a favourite wife of the prophet Mohammed, for fear that the book will offend Muslims and possibly incite violence from extremists. The historical fiction novel, The Jewel of Medina, by US journalist Sherry Jones, has been dropped from Random House US’s publishing shedule after warnings from academics and interest groups that it would be more controversial than Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. According to The Guardian, the book had already been released in Serbia but was pulled from bookstores after protests from Muslim community groups.
Coverage from The ABC and the ABC’s Arts blog Articulate reveals that the problem arose when an advance copy of the book was sent to Texas-based professor of Islam Denise Spellberg, who apparently described the book as "poorly researched", "incredibly offensive" and practically soft-core porn. From a letter she wrote to The New York Times on Saturday 9 August:
As a historian invited to comment”on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that The Jewel of Medina was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.
Serbian Mufti Muamer Zukorlic also called the book "a work that absolutely stopped at nothing in order to desecrate something that all Muslims hold sacred."
Jones claims there are no sex scenes in the book, that she had nothing but the best of intentions, and only wanted to spread understanding of Islam by celebrating these key religious figures.
Not having read the book myself, I’m hesitant to comment. I agree that there’s a fine line between censorship and sensitivity, and that pulling the plug on a book because of pressure from interest groups is a weak response from Random House. Fear of offending people isn’t a reason not to publish something (many writers would probably argue that it’s actually the perfect reason to publish).
However, cultural sensitivity is an important issue. I think it’s possible to see a parallel with the treatment of Indigenous myths and historical figures in Australian fiction, although here it becomes more about exploiting a minority. (On that, the Australia Council has put together some guidelines to help authors judge what is and isn’t appropriate when writing about Indigenous Australia, and a lot of it applies to anything outside a writer’s own cultural milieu.) Muslims are far from a minority, but tensions between Islam and America are, frankly, strained at the moment, and treading lightly on each other’s culture is probably sensible.
So where’s the line? When it comes to culturally sacred areas, who is allowed to write about them? Is a writer allowed to do what they want, as long as they research it properly, or are there some stories certain writers might not have the authority to tell? And if there are some icons that are still off-limits in today’s cultural free-for-all, should they stay off-limits, or should writers push the boundaries, and assume everything is there to be appropriated?