Random House, a leading publisher, has backed out of its commitment to publish a novel called The Jewel of Medina. The novel by Sherry Jones retells the life story of Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad's several wives, and one who after his death competed for political influence with the big boys of early Islam. Someone at Random House made the mistake of seeking a blurb from Prof. Denise Spellberg, the reigning historical expert in English on the life of Aisha. Spellberg found the novel to be badly inaccurate and badly written. She went further and deemed it insulting to Islam. Because the novel includes a rather tacky account of the Prophet's consummation of the marriage, and Aisha is believed to be well underage by modern standards at that time, Spellberg sees it as part of a tradition that denigrates Islam through ad hominem attacks on Muhammad focusing on his marriages and sex life. She went further yet and mentioned the novel's imminent publication to at least one Muslim group. She claims that she did this to warn the Muslims about an impending controversy, not to create one. She denies starting any effort to censor the novel, which has reportedly found another publisher, but she questions the propriety of insulting Islam.
"I don't have a problem with historical fiction," Spellberg told a Wall Street Journal writer, " 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." She offered an example of what she means from Jones's text: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life." That looks pretty bad. The Jewel of Medina might well insult me as a reader, but I don't claim a right to demonstrate against its publisher for that reason. Spellberg attempts to prove her liberal credentials by recalling a trip to the theater to see Scorsese's film of The Last Temptation of Christ. Unlike many Christians, Spellberg did not see the film, or the source novel, as a "deliberate misinterpretation of history," much less "soft core pornography." The problem is that many Christians are unlikely to see the distinction. They'll rightly note a double standard obliging them to tolerate works that insult their faith (The DaVinci Code is a recent instance) while even the thought of another Muslim tantrum can get anything suppressed that might offend the umma.
Say what you will about Christians, but they've learned over time to behave themselves in the face of insults. They gripe and complain and picket theaters, but they don't feel entitled to riot or threaten people's lives when someone "slanders" their religion. Many Muslims seem to think that they shouldn't have to learn the same etiquette. They demand that everyone on earth respect Muhammad or face the consequences. But non-Muslims are under no obligation to regard the person of the Prophet as sacrosanct. There is no law against us making a movie with an actor playing Muhammad, or drawing comic books about him, or submitting him to the same irreverence we can show to Jesus or Moses. We are not bound by Islamic taboos, and for Muslims to attempt to enforce them on us is an act of war that should be answered in kind. Let the trashy novel appear, and for every copy burnt, burn a Qur'an. For every bookstore attacked, attack a mosque. For every bookseller attacked, an imam. When you face intolerant people, the first step toward compromise is letting them know what you won't tolerate. From there, the next step is deciding what each side has to tolerate. We'll accept the whining and the pickets at bookstores and theaters, and they will have to learn to tolerate insults like everybody else on earth. It builds character. That's so obvious a fact that we can imagine Muhammad himself saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Here's hoping we won't have to illustrate that point.