Tuesday, August 26, 2008

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Accordingly, Random House recently cancelled publication of “The Jewel of Medina” by Sherry Jones, a romance novel featuring the holy Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha, because of fear of disturbing anti-free speech fanatics.

Book publishers have not always been so effete. In United States of America v. One Book called “Ulysses” and Random House, Inc. (1933), Random House itself courageously foiled an effort by the United States to ban the importation of James Joyce’s allegedly obscene masterpiece. Viking Books published Salmon Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” In mid-February 1989, the book provoked Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, directing all good Muslims to kill the author and his publishers. In July 1991, a Japanese translator of the publication was stabbed to death; in the same month, an Italian translator was seriously injured; and, in 1993, the Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was wounded outside his home in an assassination attempt. Yet “The Satanic Verses” was not withdrawn. The pope repudiated an overture by Iran to urge withdrawal of the Italian edition. And while several publishers of European editions and American bookstores initially surrendered to Khomeini’s threat, most later reversed course to defend free speech.

But Random House’s betrayal of free speech was predictable. It arrived as the world ogled and the International Olympic Committee rhapsodized over the Beijing Olympics while the host government celebrated by punishing dissent. The People’s Republic of China especially relished the sentencing of two decrepit septuagenarian ladies to “re-education through labor” as retaliation for their audacity in seeking permission to protest the government’s virtual confiscation of their homes years ago. The leaders of the free world averted their eyes from that vandalizing of freedom to thrill at purposeless marvels of physical strength, speed, endurance and dexterity.

Random House should be boycotted until it reverses course on “The Jewel of Medina.” Other book publishers should step into the free speech breach it created. If Random House’s propitiation of would-be private censors were aped, the pope’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum would return with a new fury and menu of forbidden books.

The media giant became alarmed in May 2008. Denise Spellberg, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, had read a review copy of Sherry Jones’ creation. According to that one non-expert in romance novels, the book was “ugly” and “stupid,” twin pejoratives that are notoriously subjective. The professor objected to novels that do not get “history right.” That standard would make students of literature rejoice. No more laboring over Shakespeare’s tragedies, “War and Peace,” “For Whom the Bells Toll,” or an endless number of romans a clef. Ms. Spellberg characterized “The Jewel of Medina” as raising a “national security issue,” evocative of those Chinese septuagenarians craving to exercise their unalienable right to free speech. Even more harrowing, according to the professor, the romance novel was “[m]ore dangerous than ‘The Satanic Verses’ or the Danish cartoons.” The latter works of fiction or caricature challenged sacred orthodoxies, which some would place off-limits to forestall intellectual or social unrest. Thus, the pope banned the “Dialogue of Galileo Galilei” to shield from examination the biblical truth of a geocentric universe.

Author Jones responded to attacks her work of fiction as follows: ” ‘The Jewel of Medina’ is a novel of women’s empowerment, never a popular theme among fundamentalists of any faith. I was also aware that some could take offense at any fictional portrayal of Muhammad, especially one by a non-Muslim woman. Given the respect with which I treated the Muslim prophet, however, I never expected to be killed because of it.” As to the novel’s sexual content, she replied that “there is almost none.”

After hearing Ms. Spellberg’s historical carping and fretting, Random House consulted other Islamic experts and its head of security before surrendering to would-be Yahoos. The book publisher might have profited more, however, by summoning a Mount Rushmore of free speech giants. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes lectured: “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas - that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can be carried out.” Justice Louis Brandeis elaborated that, “The remedy to be applied [to error] is more speech, not enforced silence.” Justice William O. Douglas amplified that, “[Free speech] may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with things as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Socrates spoke volumes by choosing the hemlock over ending his sleepless questioning of moral orthodoxies fervently held by his Athenian peers.

Random House should be ashamed by dishonoring them all.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer at Bruce Fein & Associates and author of “Constitutional Peril: The Life and Death Struggle for the Constitution and Democracy” (Palgrave Macmillan).

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