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Harmony vs. Free Speech

DW staff (kjb)August 19, 2008

British author Salman Rushdie and the Danish Mohammed cartoonist are among those in Europe who have protested a US publisher's decision to pull a controversial novel on one of Mohammed's young wives.

A woman in a pink headscarf holds a large Koran
The publisher feared the book could provoke hefty protests among MuslimsImage: AP

Salman Rushdie accused Random House, which has also published several of his books, of giving in to intimidation.

"I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have cancelled another author's novel, apparently because of concerns about possible Islamic reprisals," said Rushdie, as reported by Britain's The Times Online.

"This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed."

Salmam Rushdie
Rushdie has faced the wrath of the Muslim worldImage: AP

Rushdie caused uproar in the Islamic world in 1988 with what was perceived as a blasphemous depiction of Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses. He spent years in hiding after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death edict.

Harmony versus free speech

The currently disputed book by American journalist Sherry Jones, The Jewel of Medina, is a fictional account of the life of Mohammed's wife Aisha, from her engagement to him at the age of six to the prophet's death.

After sending out advance copies of the book, which was scheduled for publication this month, Random House was advised that it "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment," said the publisher in a statement.

The book's cancellation is the latest move in the delicate dance between the Islamic world and the Western tradition of free speech.

Islamic activists protest the reproduction of the Mohammed caricatures
The reprinting of the Mohammed cartoons sparked protest again this yearImage: AP

In 2004, for example, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered after completing a documentary on women in Islam. And in 2005 the publication of Mohammed caricatures in Denmark sparked violent protests in Muslim countries around the world.

The Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who has received death threats for his controversial drawings, spoke out against the decision to halt the publication of Jones' novel.

"One of the really big publishing houses has backed down," he told Danish news agency Ritzau. "That's not a good sign."

Voices of warning

The loudest voice of protest against the novel, however, did not come from a fundamentalist Islamic group, but from an American university professor.

Denise Spellberg, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, was given a copy of the book for review prior to publication and she didn't approve of Jones' portrayal of Mohammed's child wife.

"I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims," wrote Spellberg in a letter to the Wall Street Journal.

Bookcover: The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones
The book may still be published elsewhere

She added that the book counted on "stirring up controversy to increase sales."

Serbian publisher Beobook was to be the first worldwide company to publish a translation of Jones' book after the US debut. Beobook announced over the weekend that it, too, had pulled the title.

The decision was welcomed by Serbia's Muslim political party.

"It is a good move to lower tensions in multi-confessional Serbia," Mirsad Jusufovic of the Sandzak Democratic Party told Beta news agency.