Or does it?
You may not have seen the discussion of a publisher pulling the book, The Jewel of Medina, off the publication track in May due to a potential backlash. Author Sherry Jones wrote a fictionalized version about Aisha, the young wife of prophet Muhammad. According to The Wall Street Journal article four days ago, an extreme controversy arose once the ARCs went out for blurbs, and one particular person whom the author had hoped would give it a positive spin, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin… hated it.
Ironically, the author of the Journal article is Muslim, and laments the fact that the book was pulled, saying, "This saga upsets me as a Muslim — and as a writer who believes that
fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and
Ms. Spellberg, an American, said:
the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work… I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last
Temptation of Christ,’" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a
novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I
don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with
the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a
sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."
There are quite a lot of Christians who would say that the latter description is exactly how they perceive that adaptation, and there were protests, far and wide.
Ms. Spellberg alerted the head of a popular Muslim site about her concerns about the Jewel of Medina, who posted about the book without having read it. It snowballed from there within just a few days, if not hours, to the point where editors and publishers felt there was a very real threat of potential retaliation if the book went out into the public. In a letter to the editor
of The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Spellberg denies having been the sole
responsibility for the novel being pulled and says she felt "[i]t was
in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to
warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some
Muslims." (I’d be very curious to know what other press she notified.)
Also from the WSJ article:
Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an
editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to
Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before
from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to
write "Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.")
"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major
danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett
wrote. "Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff .
. . a national security issue.’
The book was pulled from the marketplace.
I have to say that the part about all of this that surprises me the most is the surprise over the fact that there would be potential retaliation. There are extremist groups in many religions. Hello? Crusades? KKK? The death threats made over The Da Vinci Code?
So if you "can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," that begs the question, what exactly can you do? And who’s sacred history is fair game?
The globalization of communication (i.e., the internet) has not only changed how fast we can communicate about a controversy, but just how much information is available out there. Within a very short time, Sarah over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had been emailed a copy of the prologue by the author and then Sarah led a very interesting discussion of the work on her blog–where readers of Muslim faith felt (I believe) a welcome spirit to comment, pro or con. That same globalization, however, allows for rumor, gossip, ridicule, lies and threats to be circulated with equal abandon–and that latter aspect is a threat to any sort of real learning we might have of others.
In a day when a cooking show star, Rachel Ray, can have a commercial pulled because she wore a scarf that someone then tagged with negative comments, we have to wonder: where are we going from here? I don’t think anyone in their right mind, if they were speaking to Rachel Ray directly, would have had the thought that she was pimping for murderous extremism–yet, they felt safe enough implying that (or, in some cases, outright accusing it) of the star while "reporting" on the internet. Michelle Malkin, who started the insanity, said:
Ray hawked Urban Outfitters scarves on her website before appearing in
the Dunkin’ Donuts ad. If she (or whichever stylist is dressing her)
wasn’t aware of the jihad scarf controversy before she posed for the
Dunkin’ campaign, she should have been. [italics mine]
Because absolutely everyone should investigate the background of every item of clothing they wear in public, lest there be some sort of potential negative association?
And every book ever published ought not offend anyone.
This is not a case of censorship (the publisher was free to publish, they chose not to), nor is it a case of oppression (the threats had not been made yet), nor is it a case in the Ray example of actual promotion of a violent act (seriously, like I need an example here?). This is a case of fear.
We’ve managed to become a country who feeds and chokes on fear.
The thing is, where art goes, so goes a culture. Art leads the way. Art–writing, pushing those boundaries, painting, photography–informs, questions, makes us think. Are we becoming a nation who feels that our side–and only our side [whatever that side is]–is right and there’s no room for allowing for the fact that the other side just might have some intelligence and be willing to have an open discourse? Are we becoming a culture where art is only commerce?
Art is a dialog.
And we’ve pretty much stopped talking and started shouting and ridiculing.
I don’t know of a single person who really had a change of heart because they were shouted at and ridiculed, and I don’t know of a single side who made themselves look better by being a bully. I also don’t think we learn anything by agreeing with each other and portraying everything down party lines. Where’s the individuality in that? Where’s the humanity? We’re not a homogeneous blob of people–we’re each unique, with unique experiences, both with our own religions and politics, as well as experiences with others. Do we all really want to be a big homogeneous blob? Do we think the rest of the world really ought to pick up and think exactly the way we do? How interesting is that?
So where are the lines drawn? Is it right to publish a book which possibly disrespects a religion? Do we say it’s okay to target one, but not another? Have discourse about one, but protect the other? Is it wrong to have a text which fictionalizes that religion? Or does it open a dialog? Do we really want other people vetting what we read and see and deciding if we’re smart enough to understand it and whether or not it’s accurate? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and inciting to riot?
But as artists, I think we’d better figure it out and start leading the way, because otherwise, the fractionalization of this country into sides incapable of progress because the whole is broken into pieces is just going to increase.
Where do you think the lines in the sand should be drawn?
How brave should artists be?