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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kenan Malik on self-censorship

This essay by Kenan Malik on self-censorship, arising from the ghastly situation with The Jewel of Medina, is well worth reading.

The Jewel of Medina, by American author Sherry Jones, is, as Malik puts it, "a romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's youngest wife." It was originally bought by a major trade publisher in the US, Random House, which subsequently pulled out for fear of violent reactions from Muslim radicals. This was after the publisher received advice - from an academic, Denise Spellberg, who was asked to provide an endorsement - that it was offensive to Muslims. (Note to self: be very careful who you ask for endorsements.) Subsequently, The Jewel of Medina sold to a smaller publisher in the UK, Gibson Square. Alarmingly, Gibson Square's offices were firebombed as it was about to issue the book in late 2008. Nonetheless, the book is available and apparently doing well.

Ironically, it may not have been such a magnet for violence if it had been published routinely by Random House with no fuss. As a further irony, although the book is apparently something of a bodice-ripper - romantic and ahistorical - all reports suggest that it is not hostile to Aisha, Muhammad, or Islam.

While we rightly fear infringement of our freedom of speech by the might of the state, there are other ways that our thoughts and free expression can be silenced, such as by intimidation, cowardice, toleration of the intolerant, extreme unwillingness to give offence, and a lukewarm social ethos in which free speech is given low priority.

8 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

Huh - tell me about it.

Russell Blackford said...

I expect that this may be a topic that deserves more discussion in the blogosphere ...

Brian said...

If you publish 50 voices of disbelief, then vague threat will occur.

Let the self-censoring begin....

Russell Blackford said...

The Wikipedia article on Spellman is very interesting, btw.

Russell Blackford said...

er, Spellberg ... whatever.

Brian said...

I thought Spellberg canned the Jewel book because it would detract from her books. Or did I imagine that?

Russell Blackford said...

No reason to think that, as far as I know, Brian. However, the way I look at it is this.

She was apparently invited to provide an endorsement of a book that had already been accepted for publication. Assuming that's correct, how should she have acted?

Well, when that happens, you either provide the endorsement (if you like what you see) or you decline (if you don't have the time, or you don't like what you see). You don't try to undermine the book or put barriers in the way to its publication. Maybe other people see it differently, but that's certainly how I'd see my responsibility if I were asked.

Brian said...

Seems a reasonable approach. Which probably why there's been speculation re her motives for putting the Kibosh on this book's publication via Random House.