By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Once upon a time, Sherry Jones was a Montana newspaper reporter who dreamed she could contribute to world peace with a novel about the prophet Muhammad and his feminist leanings. Then she wrote it. Today? She's the target of a Serbian mufti and a Middle Eastern studies professor with a lawyer.
Life has been a roller coaster lately for Jones, 46, who went from being a Book-of-the-Month Club pick to seeing her novel dropped by Random House, which said in a statement it had received "cautionary advice" that the fictionalized story of one of Muhammad's wives might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
A Random House spokeswoman said she could not think of any other time the company had canceled a book because of such fears.
Jones and her novel, "The Jewel of Medina," are subjects of debate from Egypt to Italy to Serbia, where 1,000 Serbian-language copies were printed before the local publisher backed out, too.
Finger-pointing abounds. Feminist Muslims are blaming censorship; Jones and her agent are blaming the Middle Eastern studies professor; and Random House is saying that Jones -- who says she doesn't fear Islamic retaliation -- should honor a non-disclosure agreement and stop talking about their dispute.
Ironically, Jones began with a pro-Islamic mind-set when she began writing the novel in 2002. After the Sept. 11 attacks led her to an interest in the Taliban, she began to research the status of women under Islam. And she came to a conclusion: Muhammad supported more rights for women than do many of his modern followers.
"I wanted to tell the story of the women around Muhammad, and to honor them and him as well," Jones said yesterday from Spokane, Wash., where she lives and writes about environmental issues for the Bureau of National Affairs. "What I see as the Islam Muhammad envisioned has, in crucial ways, been changed. I wanted to show people, especially in the West, about early Islam."
She started writing a fictionalized story of Aisha, a young and much-beloved wife of Muhammad. Seven drafts later, in April 2007, Random House gave Jones a $100,000 contract for "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel.
"Jewel" was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for August 2008, and Random House's imprint, Ballantine Books, named it one of their featured books. Jones gave Random House a list of people who might be interested in reviewing the book or writing blurbs for it.
All was well until April 30, when one suggested reviewers hit the alarm switch. Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas and has written about Aisha, called her own editor -- at Knopf, another Random House imprint -- to say the book was inflammatory and problematic.
According to Natasha Kern, Jones's agent, Spellberg went on to hire an attorney and threatened to sue if her name wasn't taken out of the book's bibliography. "She said it would endanger her family," said Kern, who said Spellberg then contacted several Muslim Web sites and told them to oppose the book's coming publication. Earlier this month, Spellberg wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that the book was "provocative" and followed a tradition of anti-Islamic writings that "use sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith." She did not return a phone call or e-mail message for this story.
Jones says the book has no sex scenes, though it explores Aisha's relationship with Muhammad in the first person and includes steamy scenes like this one: "Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan's waist. My neighbors rushed into the street. 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."
Publishing insiders are of two minds on the cancellation of "Jewel," with many calling it alarming, despite the violence that followed the 2005 publication of Danish cartoons about Islam and the worldwide fatwah inspired by Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses." (Rushdie is alive, but one translator of the novel was killed and another injured.)
"It's a commentary on the times we live in . . . in this frightened time, it's a much more loaded and charged time in history than it even was then [when Rushdie's book was published]," said Sara Nelson, a blogger for Publishers Weekly, noting that Jones is not the literary figure Rushdie is or was. "It's understandable they would do it but it still raises troubling issues about publishers' responsibilities to free speech and non-censorship."
And besides, she said, "They commissioned this book and knew what it would be about, and it's surprising to me that they didn't think of this a long time ago."
Some progressive Muslims, including feminist journalist Asra Nomani, think too much emphasis is being placed on the notion of Muhammad and Aisha as sexual beings.
"Okay, so this isn't the next great piece of literature, but it pushes the ball forward in challenging dogmatic ideas about how you can relate to Islam," Nomani said in an interview this week. "We need movement from this static relationship we have with Islam. . . . Look, Mary and Mary Magdalene have taken hits and survived somehow."
Carol Schneider, the Random House spokeswoman, said that after hearing from Spellberg, the company called security consultants and Islamic scholars, "all but one of whom expressed strong concern."
Though the book is fiction, Schneider said, Spellberg's criticisms were relevant: "Denise is a historian, but what she brought up wasn't historical inaccuracies but inflammatory passages."
On May 21, Ballantine called Jones to say the Aug. 12 publishing date should be postponed. Days later, publication was canceled.
Recently, Jones got a boost when a Serbian publisher agreed to print 1,000 copies, but within 24 hours said it wouldn't do another run after protests from a Belgrade mufti, or Islamic scholar. Soon another mufti was quoted as saying the first one was using the book to pander to orthodox Muslims. Kern says publishers in Hungary, Russia, Italy and Spain have purchased rights to print the book, but are waiting to see what happens in Serbia.
"This has taught me something I've been trying to learn my whole life," Jones said. "To accept life as it happens. I'm not in control of any of this."