Pub­lish and per­haps be damned

The Jewel of Me­d­ina may not be very good and its de­pic­tion of Mo­hammed may even lead to vi­o­lence, but the fact that some­one has up­held the prin­ci­ples of free speech to pub­lish it is to be com­mended, writes Al­varo Var­gas Llosa

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

GIB­SON Square, a Bri­tish pub­lish­ing house, has an­nounced that it will soon release The Jewel of Me­d­ina , a novel by Amer­i­can au­thor Sherry Jones whose pub­li­ca­tion in the US was re­cently can­celled by Ran­dom House for fear of trig­ger­ing vi­o­lence by Is­lamic fa­nat­ics. Bravo.

The novel fic­tion­alises the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the prophet Mo­hammed and his youngest bride, Aisha. Af­ter pay­ing the au­thor a sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance and mak­ing plans for the release of the book, Ran­dom House sent copies of the gal­leys to var­i­ous schol­ars, some of whom told the pub­lisher that the con­tent dis­torted his­tory, would in­flame Mus­lims and could cause much trou­ble. Se­cu­rity ex­perts were also con­sulted. Ran­dom House de­cided to can­cel pub­li­ca­tion of Jones’s work, in­vok­ing rea­sons of safety.

Cer­tainly this was not a case of cen­sor­ship: no one has a right to be pub­lished by any­one else. But in so far as the busi­ness de­ci­sion of the pub­lisher was dic­tated by fear of ret­ri­bu­tion aris­ing from past ex­am­ples of reprisals against peo­ple per­ceived to have den­i­grated Is­lam, the im­pli­ca­tions went be­yond the con­trac­tual re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ran­dom House and Jones.

Any time, any place in which the threat of vi­o­lence inhibits the ex­er­cise of free ex­pres­sion, the im­per­fect free­doms of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion that so many peo­ple around the world strug­gle to im­i­tate are in dan­ger. Which is why the im­pli­ca­tions of the Bri­tish pub­lisher’s au­da­cious de­ci­sion to print The Jewel of Me­d­ina also go be­yond the con­tract be­tween Gib­son Square and Jones. The book’s con­tent — which has been de­scribed, promis­ingly, as be­ing full of sex and vi­o­lence — is ir­rel­e­vant to the dis­cus­sion. It may well be, as one scholar who read it con­tends, that The Jewel of Me­d­ina is pure trash. In any case, a book of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion should never be judged on its ac­cu­racy. Great nov­els such as Tol­stoy’s War and Peace, Vic­tor Hugo’s The Hunch­back of Notre Dame and Mar­guerite Yource­nar’s Mem­oirs of Hadrian are all in­ac­cu­rate. So are bad his­tor­i­cal nov­els.

It is true that a naughty novel about Mo­hammed has the po­ten­tial to in­flame pas­sions. Sal­man Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, one of his least in­ter­est­ing cre­ations, earned him a death sen­tence from the ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini in 1989.

I re­mem­ber ask­ing Rushdie, whom I in­ter­viewed in hid­ing when The Moor’s Last Sigh came out, if he had re­con­sid­ered some of his left­ist po­si­tions against those who stood firmly for the free­doms of the West.

He had. The In­dian au­thor added that those val­ues were West­ern only in the sense that the West was where they de­vel­oped, but that their va­lid­ity was uni­ver­sal.

Some dis­trib­u­tors of The Satanic Verses were killed by Mus­lim fa­nat­ics. Dutch film­maker Theo van Gogh was mur­dered in 2004 for Sub­mis­sion, a 10- minute doc­u­men­tary on the op­pres­sion of women in Is­lamic so­ci­eties. When in 2005 Dan­ish news­pa­per Jyl­lands- Posten pub­lished 12 car­i­ca­tures of Mo­hammed, Dan­ish em­bassies were at­tacked in var­i­ous coun­tries; dozens of peo­ple died in the protests.

Any re­spon­si­ble pub­lish­ing house would, of course, take all of this into ac­count. And it has the right to do what it pleases with any man­u­script that it re­ceives, even the right to change its mind about it.

The prob­lem is not whether Ran­dom House was en­ti­tled to its de­ci­sion but what the de­ci­sion to go against its own de­sire to pub­lish the book tells us about the fear that fa­nati­cism has in­stilled in West­ern coun­tries through sys­tem­atic acts of in­tol­er­ance.

Many peo­ple in the West mis­un­der­stand what free­dom of ex­pres­sion means. They as­so­ciate it with the re­stric­tion on the power of the gov­ern­ment to in­ter­fere with the free­dom to ex­press one­self. It is re­ally a re­stric­tion on the power of any­one to in­ter­fere with any­one else’s right to free ex­pres­sion, in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to the gov­ern­ment. If a busi­ness de­ci­sion is made un­der ex­treme fear — di­rectly or in­di­rectly caused by force from a third per­son rather than the gov­ern­ment — free­dom of ex­pres­sion also suf­fers.

I am not in­ter­ested in the rea­sons Gib­son Square has de­cided to pub­lish the book: whether op­por­tunism, greed, love of scan­dal, a dis­like of the prophet or a be­lief in the mer­its of the novel. But that some­one, some­where, is will­ing to run the risk of not let­ting the threat of vi­o­lence in­hibit free ex­pres­sion is tremen­dously com­fort­ing.

The New Repub­lic Al­varo Var­gas Llosa is the ed­i­tor of Lessons from the Poor and di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre on Global Pros­per­ity at the In­de­pen­dent In­sti­tute.

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