LONDON, ENGLAND — “On hell’s door.” That’s where an American author and her British publisher were told they would find themselves if they dared print their historical piece of fiction entitled “The Jewel of Medina.”
Apparently it’s not just a figure of speech. On Saturday evening on a quiet square in London, a tidy fire bomb was squeezed through the mail slot of a substantial door. The building is both the home and office of Martin Rynja and his Gibson Square publishing company who have just agreed to publish “The Jewel of Medina.”
Little did the would-be terrorists know that Scotland Yard was keeping an eye on the house and warned Rynja to leave just the night before.
Three men were promptly arrested on the suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
American author Sherry Jones is adamant that in writing her fictional account of the Prophet Mohammed’s youngest wife, Aisha, she meant no disrespect to Islam. Jones contends the book is meant to be a tribute to the courage and modern resonance of a little girl who was said to be Mohammed’s wife at the age of nine.
Most have never cracked the spine of this book and yet it is speaking volumes to both sides in the freedom of speech debate, a debate that almost 20 years to the day is still haunting Salman Rushdie after the 1988 publication of his book, “The Satanic Verses.”
Jones says it was actually Random House Publishing that jumpstarted this controversy. Random House was to publish her book in the UK but pulled out citing “security concerns.” That’s when Rynja and his Gibson Square publishing company stepped in to say it would indeed put “The Jewel of Medina” on European bookshelves. And then someone pitches a firebomb at his house.
Anjem Choudary is a longtime critic of what he calls the blanket protection of free speech, especially when it offends Islam.
“I’m not going to blame people who are reacting towards provocation. I think we need to deal with the root cause of all of this problem which is people gratuitously attacking Islam and Muslims and we should learn the lessons of Salman Rushdie,” he says.
Just to make sure I heard him right, I asked Choudary if he was saying that the author’s life was in danger if she dared publish her book.
“I think certainly, you know there will be consequences for her,” he said, reading the shock on my face and adding: “Well, would you just prefer that I remain silent? And then someone just you know firebombed some more houses and some more publishing places and you find blood on the streets of London? Is that a wise thing to do? I think it’s better for us to come out and tell you ‘look, this is what the Islamic verdict is.’”
Shelina Zahra is no opponent of free speech, she and her blog, www.spirit21.co.uk, thrive on the cut and thrust of earnest, intelligent debate. But she too has reservations about the tone and content of the book.
“I think the book raises the same big question again — where does freedom of speech end, and sheer good manners and etiquette begin? And it’s a conversation that is constantly at cross purposes, because the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Muslims simply state generically, if we find it so upsetting, why do you keep publishing this stuff? Are you out deliberately to provoke?”
Zehra says although she has not read the entire book, it certainly falls short of scholarly pursuit. And she asks openly, what is the purpose of publishing such a work?
“I think Muslims are not saying anything about freedom of speech but actually legitimately calling a public debate on whether the concept of freedom of speech has blanket applicability, no questions asked, or needs to have a worthy cause which trumps social harmony and social cohesion.” says Zehra.
And yet she says there would be nothing gained by calling for the book’s censorship, save perhaps big sales for the author and publisher as the “controversy” is played up in the media.
This story is still simmering, so watch this space. We are still hoping to get comments from both Sherry Jones and her would-be publisher.
In the meantime, what do you think? We want to hear from you.