Random Error
Fearing the risk of violence, a publisher capitulates.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"LIBERTY LIES in the hearts of men and women," the great federal judge Learned Hand once wrote. "When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court, can save it." And he was right: Free societies survive not only because of good government; they also survive because citizens assert their rights, even when government, or a mob, may object. Alas, the spirit of liberty needs reinforcement at one distinguished American book publisher. Random House has canceled publication of "The Jewel of Medina," American writer Sherry Jones's romance novel about the prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. The publisher says it feared a repeat of the death threats from Iran that greeted Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" -- or riots such as those that broke out in the Muslim world after a Danish publication printed cartoons of Muhammad.

Random House, well aware of these precedents, was apparently comfortable with publishing the book until May, when it got a phone call -- not from Tehran, but from Denise Spellberg, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas. Ms. Spellberg had read a review copy of the book and found it "ugly" and "stupid." "You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," she told the Wall Street Journal. Without waiting for an actual uproar in the Muslim world, Ms. Spellberg warned Random House of a "national security issue" and told the publisher to dump the book. Spooked, Random House consulted "credible and unrelated sources," which advised it "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."

We do not take Random House's concerns lightly. Responsibility attaches to the exercise of free speech, and given faithful Muslims' sensitivities about depictions of Muhammad, a responsible publisher would weigh all the costs and benefits of printing a novel that floridly imagines Muhammad and Aisha's wedding night: "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." But the author says, and there's no reason to doubt her, that she meant to honor both the prophet and his wives. Random House editors apparently thought the work had artistic merit. And for the sake of art, book publishers and other cultural institutions take risks all the time, including the risk of offending certain religious groups. Otherwise, we would not have films such as "Borat" or "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- indeed, we would not have a free and vibrant culture at all.

This time -- for the first time in its history -- Random House capitulated, even though its own experts told it the book might be offensive only to "some," not most, Muslims. Only "a small, radical segment" might resort to violence. Yet that intolerant fringe, newly empowered and emboldened by this victory, will be around for a long time to come. Leading cultural institutions must stand up to it -- lest the most violent acquire a veto over our most precious freedoms.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company