Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Offensive literature

A novel which includes a sympathetic, even lyrical, description of child abuse has been withdrawn by its publishers.

Yes, indeed. You've probably heard, or read online, about the latest front that has opened up in the Islam-West culture war: the "controversial" novel Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones, which has been withdrawn because of advice, given to Random House, "not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment." An academic referee read the work, hated it, emailed some Muslim bloggers that the next Satanic Verses had arrived, and the publisher caved in. The high-profile campaign that had been planned - an eight city book tour - was scrapped, and Mrs Jones told to try and sell her book elsewhere.

Even if no-one has been offended, goes the reasoning, someone might be; and in the wake of the Danish cartoons crisis, you can't be too careful. Cue - needless to say - outrage. Mick Hume, writing in The Times, calls it "another example of a quiet wave of self-censorship and cultural cowardice sweeping Western art circles,", a "pre-emptive grovelling" that "now appears to be the modus operandi of the transatlantic arts elites." Cue, too, the expected mealy-mouthed expressions of regret, as the publishers announce themselves fully committed to free speech, yet principally concerned about their staff. It's understandable, perhaps, but it's also deeply depressing. And it hands a powerful tool into the hands of the extremists, who now, it seems, have merely to raise the spectre of a placard-waving mob. Indeed, as this latest affair seems to show, it doesn't even need to go that far. No actual placard-waving mobs need to be involved, or even threatened, merely the idea, in some executive's mind, that such a mob might possibly, one day, exist. As Hume puts it,


The threat to freedom here does not come from a few Islamic radicals, but from the invertebrate liberals of the cultural establishment who have so lost faith in themselves that they will surrender their freedoms before anybody starts a fight. The mere suggestion of causing offence to some mob of imagined stereotypes is enough to have them scurrying for a bomb shelter, their creative imaginations blowing up small protests into the threat of a big culture war


It's hard to imagine, today, the robust response with which most of the bookselling industry met the very serious threats to The Satanic Verses. Then, book-burnings and death-threats - and actual deaths - were met by bemused, half-embarrassed denials of ill intent, but no actual withdrawals. The book remained on sale. It still is: a new paperback edition was recently brought out, ironically by Vintage, part of the Random House imprint. But then any fuss dies down if you leave it long enough.

But what of the book at the centre of this latest storm? It tells the tale of Aisha, the favourite (and, by some distance, the youngest) wife of Mohammed. The majority of Muslim scholars, and certainly all the sources, have traditionally declared that Aisha was a mere six years old when she was betrothed to Mohammed (who was aged around fifty), nine when the marriage was consummated, and eighteen when she became a widow. Until a few decades ago, these remarkable (to us) facts seemed less shocking than perhaps they do today: the assumed nubility of the child bride was attributed by Gibbon, for example, to the "premature ripeness of the climate". To Muslims it was traditionally a source of pride that their holy prophet had been able, even in late middle age, to satisfy the sexual needs of a dozen wives, especially the youngest, whose youth was assumed to make her particularly demanding.

That was then; and it should be remembered that premature marriage was not uncommon in Europe in earlier times. The age of consent in England was set at 12 until the mid-19th century. Today, by contrast, the case of Aisha has caused much soul-searching among Muslims, who are brought up to regard Mohammed as the model and pattern of their lives, and also among westerners sympathetic towards Islam. A variety of responses have resulted. At one end of the spectrum are those Muslims who see Aisha's age as no problem, on the grounds that if Mohammed was content to have sexual relations with a nine year old girl then, by definition, such a thing is well and good. The late Ayatollah Khomeini was of this view: one of the first acts by which he established the Islamic nature of the new Iranian republic was a reduction in the age of marriage to nine (though it has, since his death, been raised to fourteen). A story reported yesterday from Saudi Arabia concerns the efforts of a mother to prevent her eight year old daughter from being married to a man in his fifties: the girl's father has given his consent. "According to human rights lawyers, there are many cases of this kind before the Saudi courts."

The opposite extreme is to deny that Aisha was nine at the time the marriage was consummated, a popular approach with modern-minded Muslims who can't bring themselves to admit that Mohammed did anything so profoundly shocking as to have had sex with a child. They look to ambiguities or contradictions in the hadiths which allow them to argue that the evidence is unclear - and therefore that Aisha must have been what we would consider to be of age. And then they assert that these revisionist readings are facts, and find a ready audience among western liberals desperate to think well of the prophet. Between these camps is a middle way - the view that Mohammed was a man of his time, and that his times were very different from ours and so his example should not be followed today. Against both these reformist views it might be adduced that the extreme youth of Aisha was considered worthy of comment even at the time.

We are dealing, then, with a potentially dangerous cocktail of sex and religion, a clash of attitudes medieval and modern to add to the fears that now attend any artistic product that might be deemed "offensive" to Islamic sensibilities. How has the novelist Sherry Jones - the mother, it might be relevant to add, of a 14 year old daughter - come to grips with this issue? Here we confront, truly, her disappointment, even her despair. "I'm devastated," she told Asra Nomani of the Wall Street Journal, adding, "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."

Indeed, her aim in writing the book - which took her six years, we're told - was to build bridges, not simply to justify the ways of Islam to middle America, but to give the sometimes controversial history of Islam a big, soppy, all-American kiss. Aisha in her book is slightly older than nine when the deed is done (eleven, so far as I can make out), which Jones seems to think mitigates any suggestion of paedophilia. "All I did was try to portray Aisha, Muhammad's child bride (believed by most historians to have married Muhammad at age nine and consummated the marriage at age 11) in the context of her times," she wails on the blog she recently set up to record her travails.

Here's an extract from that pivotal scene:

This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It's always painful the first time....

...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.


I don't know about you, but reading that makes me feel distinctly queasy. And it's hard to disagree with Denise Spellberg, the Texan academic blamed by most reports for engineering the book's withdrawal, that it was "an ugly, stupid work" and "soft-core pornography", as well as being historically inaccurate. Jones, however, is very proud of her work. She insists, moreover, that "My portrayal of Muhammad is extremely respectful, and of the origins of Islam is very accurate and respectful".

There, then, is her case: not that she, as a writer, should be able to write whatever she wishes to without fear of mobs or organised campaigns of censorship, but that singling out her book is unfair. Because she Meant Well. Because she has portrayed Mohammed as a Great Guy, and his child bride as a "a strong, witty, influential leader". Not exactly a ringing endorsement of free speech.

Nothing daunted, Sherry Jones has released the first chapter of her novel online(pdf). Here's how it begins:

Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan’s waist. My neighbors rushed into the street like storm waters flooding a wadi. Children stood in clusters to point and gawk. Their mothers snatched them to their skirts and pretended to avert their eyes. Men spat in the dust and muttered, judging. My father’s mouth trembled like a tear on the brink.

What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God's Prophet entwined around another man. What they couldn’t see: my girlhood dreams shattered at my feet, trampled by a truth as hard and blunt as horses' hooves.


This is dire stuff indeed, the sort of effusion that might be expected from someone who has recently joined a provincial writers' circle. At 46, Sherry Jones really ought to be too old for this sort of adolescent guff. I don't know if it would really offend Muslim sensibilities, but it certainly offends me; the fact that Jones was paid a reported $100,000 advance for this novel and its sequel is surely an indictment of modern publishing. It would be nice to imagine that some editor at Random House finally, belatedly, read this embarrassment and decided to cut their losses, using the potential offence as an excuse. It seems, more likely, though, that this really is institutional cowardice.

Censorship is a terrible thing. Pre-emptive, fear-induced self-censorship is perhaps worse. The notion that discussion of, or literary portrayal of, Mohammed of any kind except the crawlingly reverential is off limits - that he, alone of all figures of human history (including all religious founders) cannot be subject to critical examination - is dangerous and wrong. Apart from anything else Muslims owe it to themselves to develop a collective sense of perspective.

But while I certainly deplore the fact that the novel has been pulled, I suspect that this sugary confection would have done almost as much damage to free speech if it had been published, and Muslims had loved it.

5 comments:

parallax said...

Heresiarch, I just wanted to let you know the sad news that fellow blogger cynicalsteve died early yesterday morning. His blog was a friendly, calm space and he will be sorely missed.

http://thedoggerelsbollocks.wordpress.com/category/the-last-post/

Edwin said...

Ah so sorry to hear it Parallax. I kept a copy of some verse he posted on Cif last year which I really liked - always looked out for his comments and of course he was here on Heresy Corner the other week.

Please do pass my sympathy to any of his family you may know; his was a humane and witty voice, and a not that common one in cyberspace (or actual space, for that matter).

FROM CIF JUNE 2007
cynicalsteve

Comment No. 576541
June 28 22:31
Elegy for a censored post.

Bizarre that such a lousy site
Should need protection from my rage.
But now that I have seen the light -
May I, once more, write on this page?

I promise - no more naughty words!
(Though logorrhoea is my bane)
I'll be as bland as t'other nerds
And never scatalogue again....



Heresiarch i would find the Ayesha (or however she's spelled) stuff hard to comment on at the best of times. The novel is clearly a sub- Mill and Boon type of thing, and like so many attempts to 'explain' Islam and its history would have the opposite effect from that intended - and of course the censorship is awful.

The Heresiarch said...

Thank you for letting me know, Parallax - and for the verse, Edwin, which says it all, really. I'd encourage anyone who came across Steve's work to follow the link and leave a message.

lost causes said...

Publishing, broadcasting and advertising are lost causes when it comes to (self) censorship. If this had happened 20 years ago, it would have been a serious issue of free speech. However, thanks to our lovely internet, the author is today free to distribute the work globally with ease, so it comes down to business. If the publishers don't think it's good business, it's their call.

valdemar said...

The position, then, is this.

'While other groups in society can be criticised, mocked or otherwise offended, Muslims must be handled with extreme care because they are violent, ignorant, superstitious savages. Say the wrong thing and they'll try to kill you, me, and everybody else. They're not like civilized people at all. But we must disguise this deep-rooted hatred, fear and contempt for all Muslims with talk of radical minorities and extremists.'

Or am I being unfair? And can anyone recommend a good hidey-hole?