From 'You Still Can't Write About Muhammad' by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal.
A journalist named Sherry Jones wrote a historical novel about Aisha, who was married to Mohammed when she was 6, though he waited until she was 9 before having sex with her. The novel was due to be published this August; last April Random House sent it to several people for comment, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Jones has put Spellberg on the list because she had read Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. Spellberg thought the book was terrible; on April 30 she called Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in her classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site. Amanullah says she was upset and that she told him the novel 'made fun of Muslims and their history'; she asked him to 'warn Muslims.'
Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Spellberg (who is under contract with Knopf to write Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an).
"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote. "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."
Random House also received a letter from Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name were associated with the novel.
Spellberg told the WSJ reporter, '"I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."
B&W is asking academics, journalists, free speech advocates and the like the following question:
Given the Wall Street Journal's account, what do you think of Spellberg's actions?My answer:
The qualification, “Given the Wall Street’s account” is important. It’s difficult to be sure, on the basis of a newspaper article containing second-hand quotes, precisely what Spellberg said and did. She may have been subtly or not so subtly misunderstood. I would be wary of launching any sort of attack on Spellberg on the basis of just this evidence.
If Spellberg did not like the book, then of course she should be free to say so. She should also be free to warn the publisher that, in her opinion, its publication is likely to result in violence. Certainly, that information shouldn’t be denied the publisher, should it? If Spellberg knew the book would probably provoke violence, it would be irresponsible of her to keep that information from the publisher, particularly as that seems to be have been one of the publishers' concerns.
Again, if Spellberg is being asked her opinion on whether it is wise to publish, given this threat, and her view is that it’s not, she should be free to say so. We don’t want to curtail Spellberg’s freedom of speech in order to defend freedom of speech, do we? I wouldn't want to censor Spellberg's views; nor would I encourage her to censor herself.
However, if the news report is accurate, it seems that Spellberg went further. The phone call to Amanullah asking him to “warn Muslims” is peculiar. Why would she do that? Deliberately drawing widespread Muslim attention to the book – indeed “warning” them via a Muslim website - is obviously likely to provoke exactly the violent response she wants to avoid. My guess is that Spellberg was, at this point, panicking about her own safety, and doing whatever she could publicly to dissociate herself from the book lest violent Muslims later pronounce her guilty by association. If so, that doesn’t reflect quite so well on her.
As for Spellberg’s views – well, mine differ. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be silenced by violent religious zealots. The more of us are prepared to stand together and say, “No – we will say what we want”, rather than just pathetically cave in to the nutters, the better.
But that’s a criticism of Spellberg’s views, not her actions, which is what the above question specifically addresses. Actually, most of what Spellberg did, I have no problem with. True, the alleged contacting of Amanullah to “warn Muslims” doesn’t reflect well on Spellberg. But of course, we can’t be 100% sure that this even happened as described (perhaps Amanullah’s account of what Spellberg said is not entirely accurate). At this point, I’d give Spellberg the benefit of the doubt.