Appraising 'The Jewel of Medina'

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

"The Jewel of Medina," a controversial work of historical fiction by American author Sherry Jones, was supposed to have gone on sale Oct. 15 in the United Kingdom. A series of events, however, have delayed its British release indefinitely. The book, which went on sale in the United States on Oct. 6, describes the life of Aisha, the young girl who became the Prophet Mohammed's third — and according to many sources, favorite — wife.

Some Muslims have labeled the book blasphemous and have branded the author an enemy of Islam. An associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin said Muslims would find the book very offensive and, in an August interview in The Wall Street Journal, likened it to soft-core pornography.

While the author and publisher have argued that the book respectfully portrays Mohammed and his relationship with Aisha — in stark contrast to the Danish cartoons that have sparked so much protest and violence — the tone of the book is not the real issue. To many Muslims, not only is it offensive to ridicule Mohammed but it is forbidden and considered a dire insult to portray the prophet in any way outside the context of Islamic writings. This insult is magnified when Mohammed is depicted having intimate relations with his wife, a revered figure in Islam who is referred to in many Islamic writings as "Um ul Mumineen" (Arabic for "Mother of the Believers"). Because of this, in all probability many Muslims — not just a few radicals — will find the book offensive.

"The Jewel of Medina" is scheduled to be released in 15 other countries in 2008, including major European markets, Russia and Brazil. There have been no known fatwas, or religious opinions, issued by Muslim leaders calling for action against Jones or any of the book's publishers at this time. Likewise, a spokesman for the U.S. publisher notes that Jones has not personally received any threats related to the book. The book already has prompted one amateurish attack against the home of its British publisher, however, and we believe that as the issue percolates, we will see more violence in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in connection with the book.

Background

The controversy surrounding "The Jewel of Medina" first reached the public eye in August, when U.S. publisher Random House Inc. announced it had indefinitely postponed the book's release. In delaying publication, Random House noted that some Muslims could find the book's content offensive, which might spark protests and acts of violence against the company, its employees and booksellers. In public statements after the delay, Random House said it had not received any direct threats associated with the publication of the novel, though it did receive numerous letters calling on the company not to publish it.

On Sept. 8, Beaufort Books announced that it had signed a two-book deal with Jones to publish "The Jewel of Medina" in the United States in October, along with an unnamed sequel to be released in 2009.

Despite its delayed release in the United States, the novel was published in August in Serbia by Serbian publisher BeoBook. The release drew criticism from Muslim leaders in Serbia, who called for nonviolent protests against both the publisher and distributors of the book. Calls for protests were led by a nongovernmental organization known as the Islamic Community of Serbia, whose objections to the novel included its "pornographic" depiction of Mohammed, along with the broader issue of writing about Mohammed's wives outside the context of the Koran. BeoBook chose to withdraw the book from stores before any demonstrations took place in Belgrade. BeoBook later re-released "The Jewel of Medina" in mid-September, saying pirated copies were circulating without any violent reaction. No protest activities or other threats have been noted in Serbia following the book's re-release.

On Sept. 8, the day the Beaufort Books deal was announced in the United States, British publisher Gibson Square said it would release "The Jewel of Medina" in the United Kingdom in mid-October. On the morning of Sept. 27, three would-be arsonists attacked the residence of Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja, reportedly forcing a small incendiary device through the front door mail slot of the home, which also serves as the headquarters for Gibson Square publishers. Three men were arrested shortly after the incident and have been charged in connection with the crime. The suspects reportedly have indicated that the attack was indeed related to the publication of "The Jewel of Medina." Law enforcement officials have stated that they do not believe the men are connected to any transnational terrorist organizations, and the amateurish method of attack seems to support that assertion.

Radical Islamist leaders in the United Kingdom have praised the attack, saying they could not condemn the death of anyone who promotes "blasphemous" portrayals of Mohammed, and calling the book "an insult to the Prophet's honor." The leaders also noted that there are likely to be more attacks in the United Kingdom connected to the publication of "The Jewel of Medina."

Case Studies

To better gauge the scope of potential threats and incidents that could result from distribution of "The Jewel of Medina," it is useful to examine earlier incidents where large segments of Muslim society were angered by the publication of images or other portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed — and when that outrage caused radical Muslims to respond with violence.

As mentioned above, the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed galvanized Muslims in many countries, and the cartoons sparked protests in a variety of locations. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard drew the cartoons, and Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published them in September 2005. The cartoons' initial release produced very little fallout. In fact, the majority of protest activity surrounding their publication did not begin until early 2006, when information about the cartoons was intentionally spread through Muslim communities worldwide by Muslim activists seeking to create an uproar over the cartoons and instigate violence. They even stacked the deck by adding some extremely inflammatory cartoons of the prophet not published in Jyllands-Posten.

In early 2006, protests began throughout the Muslim world and in areas with large Muslim populations, including Western Europe. The protests often turned violent, leaving at least 50 people dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations frequently occurred outside Danish embassies, with protesters calling for the death of Westergaard or the downfall of the Danish government. Protesters claimed the Danish government had shown disregard for Islam by permitting the cartoons' publication. Large-scale demonstrations took place most frequently in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, though violent protests occurred in many other areas.

During these protests, Danish diplomatic and commercial facilities were often destroyed. Muslim leaders also called for a boycott of Danish goods, and these boycotts cost Danish companies millions of euros. The cartoon controversy came to prominence again in August 2007, when similar cartoons were republished in Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda as part of an editorial regarding censorship.

In addition to the response from individuals, militant groups weighed in on the situation, threatening attacks against Denmark and persons involved in producing the cartoons. Among those to react was al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who threatened attacks against European countries. In a March audiotape, bin Laden noted that the images were more provocative than killing Muslim civilians, saying al Qaeda's actions would serve as punishment for the publications.

In June, a suicide bomber attacked the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, killing eight people and wounding 24. In a video statement delivered days after the attack, al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi said the bombing was meant to fulfill bin Laden's warnings to Denmark and the rest of Europe following the publication of the cartoons. The video also threatened more attacks against those who dared disrespect Mohammed.

In July 2006, two suspects placed two timed incendiary devices aboard two separate trains in Germany. The attack, which could have caused mass casualties, failed when the devices did not function as intended. German authorities arrested several suspects, one of whom reportedly told the authorities that the attack was a response to the cartoons' publication in German newspapers.

The individuals responsible for the cartoons also received personal threats. A number of Muslim leaders issued fatwas against Westergaard. Fatwas are not legally or morally binding statements, though they often motivate Muslims to participate in certain actions to prove their faithfulness to Islam. In addition to fatwas issued against Westergaard, a Pakistani religious leader offered a reward of $1 million and a car to the person who murdered Westergaard. Law enforcement authorities in Denmark later uncovered several plots to assassinate him, though none of the plots was carried out.

Another recent example of Muslim wrath spurred by what many Westerners consider an exercise of free speech and artistic license was the November 2004 slaying by a militant Muslim of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh had directed a short documentary called "Submission" that discussed the issue of violence committed against Muslim women. The movie was considered especially inflammatory because it contained depictions of Koranic verses interposed on nude female bodies.

Van Gogh received several threats following the August 2004 release of "Submission," but he seemed to disregard them and refused to accept protection. Van Gogh was attacked while riding his bicycle to work. His assassin, Mohammed Boyeri, shot van Gogh eight times and then attempted to behead him with a knife before leaving a threatening note pinned to van Gogh's body with a second knife.

The 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" also offers valuable insights about the potential reception of "The Jewel of Medina." Many Muslims condemned Rushdie's novel for depicting a false prophet named "Mahound" (a derogatory moniker for the Prophet Mohammed), creating characters that questioned the validity of Islam, and suggesting that Mahound might have received words in the Koran from the devil. Despite critical acclaim, the book was banned in more than 10 countries prior to publication. Another 11 countries banned the book after outbreaks of violence in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Protests against "The Satanic Verses" erupted throughout Muslim communities in early 1989. At least 25 people died in demonstrations in India, Pakistan and Iran, while others were seriously injured. The demonstrations drew large crowds, with more than 10,000 protesters reported at one event that turned deadly in Islamabad, Pakistan. Demonstrations against the book also occurred in several European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Poland.

The problems surrounding "The Satanic Verses" intensified in February 1989 when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie and the novel's publishers, sentencing them all to death because of the "blasphemous" content of the book. Rushdie, an Indian-born citizen of the United Kingdom, was placed under official protection under an assumed name for several years following the fatwa, amid concerns that faithful Muslims would attempt to carry out Khomeini's death sentence.

In the United States, several bookstores carrying the "The Satanic Verses" reported threats against their managers or against the stores themselves. B. Dalton Bookseller, the second-largest book distributor at the time, told reporters that while it had not experienced any violence surrounding the novel, four store managers had received threatening phone calls related to the title. Rushdie's U.S. publisher, Viking Penguin, received a number of bomb threats, though none of the threats materialized into actual attacks. The publisher also received hundreds of calls from Muslims requesting that "The Satanic Verses" be removed from distribution.

Press reports indicate that several hundred threats to bookstores were reported to the FBI in the first four months of 1989. In March 1989, two bookstores in Berkeley, Calif., were bombed, causing minor property damage. Most U.S. bookstores eventually removed the book from distribution. In addition to protest activities in the United Kingdom, at least five London bookstores were firebombed following the release of the novel. Each of the five shops carried "The Satanic Verses" at the time of the attacks. Nearly all British bookstores removed the book from their shelves in the spring of 1989.

Though Khomeini's fatwa has not led to Rushdie's death, a number of other individuals associated with the book's publication were attacked, and some were murdered. Ettore Capriolo, who translated the book into Italian, was beaten and stabbed in July 1991. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in an attack the same month. Turkish translator Aziz Nesin was attacked in October 1993 but survived critical injuries.

A Long-Term Problem

As seen in the examples noted above, "The Jewel of Medina" has the potential to cause problems for many years. Though this issue might fade quickly from public consciousness in the West, the subject matter of the book has the potential to inflame Muslim activists again in the future. In the case of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, Pakistani religious leaders admitted that they intentionally stirred up emotions connected with the publication of Mohammed's images after the initial furor died down. It is thus quite possible that "The Jewel of Medina" will be used in the same way. This time frame could span decades. In the case of "The Satanic Verses," large-scale protests condemning the book and Rushdie occurred as recently as fall 2007, 19 years after the novel's publication.

If "The Jewel of Medina" becomes a prominent issue in Muslim communities, it is likely that militant organizations will issue fatwas and other statements related to the book. They might even call for protests or attacks to correct the alleged damage caused by the novel. If such calls occur, demonstrators and perpetrators of violence might not necessarily belong to an organized group. Instead, it is very likely that Muslims who are unaffiliated with such groups but nevertheless feel called to make a stand in favor of Islam could choose to participate in these activities. Such actions probably will not be limited to areas that experience frequent militant activity, such as Pakistan. Instead, these actions could occur in any area with a significant Muslim population, especially Western Europe. While these activities are less likely to occur inside the United States, such issues should not be entirely discounted.

We are not necessarily predicting an immediate open season on Sherry Jones or the publishers of the book, but precautions should obviously be taken to prevent them from becoming the next Theo van Goghs. And as the ancillary attacks in the Rushdie case (among others) have shown, other people also can become victims, and violence can be channeled in unexpected ways and appear in unexpected places. When it comes to perceptions of blasphemy and other affronts that some see as warranting death, fatwas often are carried out with extreme brutality — and those targeted have not always been directly associated with the initial offense. Considering past examples and the probable emotions "The Jewel of Medina" will raise in the Islamic world, revenge for offended religious sensibilities might be brutal, and it might be a long time coming.

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