I’ve written before about Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel of Medina, a life of Muhammed’s wife Aisha, which Random House pulled out of publishing after an academic claimed that it would offend religious fundamentalists. The good news is that the novel has been picked up by London publisher Gibson Square. The bad news? The house of Gibson Square’s publisher, Martin Rynja, was firebombed this weekend. The fanatics are speaking out:
[T]he radical cleric Anjem Choudhary said the book was an insult to the Prophet Mohammed’s honour, something he said would warrant a ‘death penalty’ under Sharia law…he was ‘not surprised at all’ by the attack and warned of possible further reprisals over the book.
‘It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty,’ he said.
‘People should be aware of the consequences they might face when producing material like this. They should know the depth of feeling it might provoke.’
He denied any involvement in the attack but said he ‘understood’ the feelings of the perpetrators.
‘If the publication goes ahead then I think, inevitably, there will be more attacks like this – this is the thin of the wedge,’ he said.
Speaking from Lebanon, the radical cleric Omar Bakri, added: ‘If anybody attacks that man I cannot myself condemn it.’
Martin Rynja seems like a brave and remarkable man.
This is not the first time that Rynja, owner of a small, independent publishing house, has shown himself to have more gumption and appetite for controversy than the big boys. Four years ago, he published Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud after Random House, once again, pulled out – this time for fear of libel action. He is also the publisher of OJ Simpson’s If I Did It and Alexander Litvinenko’s Blowing Up Russia.
Rynja’s support for free speech is proving to be exceptional, as is his courage in standing up to bullies, at a time when other publishers will surrender at any intimation of legal action – particularly from litigious Saudis. Rynja, who trained as a lawyer, has shown that capitulation need not be inevitable. I can only hope that the shocking attack on his office will not dim his determination – but he will need support.
The liberal principle that we may interfere with the actions of another (only) to prevent harm to others does have its difficulties since, like many other conceptual boundaries, the boundaries of the concept of harm are fuzzy. But the principle, if it is one, that freedom of speech must be curbed to avoid offending people, is manifestly a qualification of the right of free speech that all but destroys the usefulness of the right. For there are no boundaries on what people can be offended by.
But what we’re seeing here is not censorship enacted because someone has taken offence but censorship enacted because there is a fear that someone might take offence. Remember that Islamic fundamentalists are suspected to have firebombed someone’s house because of a book that they can’t possibly have read. I think the author has it right:
If Random House had simply published my book… I don’t think there would have been any trouble. The real problem is not that Muslims are offended but that people think they will be. I was disgusted by the inflammatory language Random House used to describe the potential Muslim reaction.
Emphasis mine: it is like Keynes’s beauty contest. From Kenan Malik’s piece:
Rushdie’s critics lost the battle but won the war. They never prevented the publication of his novel. But the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.
Under the current climate, people are expected to be politicians, editing and sanitising what they say so as to juggle the interests of competing pressure groups. The result is that public speech becomes bland and airless: a sentimental conspiracy about mediocrity.
Time to make it clear that we are not diplomats. We are writers. We cannot be constantly offence-checking every word and trying to second-guess the paranoid minority. That way lies madness, and the death of free expression.
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