Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spellberg "warns" the Muslims

There's an interesting discussion going on at Butterflies and Wheels about an academic who allegedly "warned" Muslims about an upcoming book. Here's "the story" followed by "the question".

The story

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 Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."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."

OB

The question

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.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

"..she asked him to 'warn Muslims.'"

Is this deliberately ambiguous journalism.
Warned not to read it. Or warned to have opinions ready. Or warned to be ready to take up arms? The last gives that little frisson which sells papers.

Ophelia Benson said...

One bit of possible evidence is that Spellberg wrote to the Wall Street Journal in reply to Asra Nomani's article, and she didn't mention telling Amanullah to 'warn Muslims.' Since she was probably getting some unwelcome public attention by then, it seems likely that she would have denied it if it were in fact untrue. I think her silence on the matter is good reason to think that she did tell him that. Not conclusive of course, but something.

anticant said...

Here we go again! It's time for all of us to face up to the fact that there are some people - not all, but mostly, Muslims - who are prepared to kill us if they don't like what we say.

This a basic issue for democracy.

Personally, I think Ms Spellberg is a wimp.

Stephen Law said...

Interesting point Ophelia. Mind you, even if Spellberg did contact the Muslim website guy in order to "warn" Muslims, knowing the likely consequences, because she feared for her own safety and wanted to make sure she could not be associated with the book in any positive way, I still wouldn't want to get too high-handed and judgemental. Sounds like the woman got scared and panicked, doing a rather silly thing in the heat of the moment. It's all very well us making principled judgements about her actions but fact is many of us, when actually confronted by a real threat to ourselves and our family, might well panic too. The most I want to say, I think, is that this is a rather sad episode and Spellberg has made herself look somewhat pathetic. But I don't want to crucify the poor woman.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, absolutely - if she acted out of personal fear, then her actions are regrettable but understandable. But so far I haven't seen anything to suggest that she did; from what she's said herself she acted largely out of anger at the book (and the author); she thought the research was bad, the book was bad, and that the author had sexualized Aisha - and that people shouldn't write novels about Aisha anyway.

I don't want to crucify her though!

Ophelia Benson said...

That comment wasn't anonymous, it was mine, but it did something mystifying. Anyway, to put it a bit more clearly, I agree that if she feared for her own safety I wouldn't want to get too judgmental either; but from everything I've read so far she wasn't personally afraid, rather she was angry; she thought the book was bad, and badly researched, and 'offensive' on religious grounds.

Stephen Law said...

If she was motivated by rage, and contacting the Muslim website guy was done in the hope that widespread Muslim anger would then be brought down on the author, that's very weird indeed. Given, I mean, that she is clearly concerned about *not* provoking a violent response.

I can't really make much sense of what she thought she was doing, to be honest, so I was going with the most charitable interpretation. I don't feel I have enough info. to feel confident about accusing her of more, at this point. But you may be right, I don't deny that. Indeed, for all I know, she merits us getting the four-by-two and the nails out.

Stephen Law said...

Of course if she had contacted the Muslim web guy out of fear, she would be unlikely to admit that now. For that would be to admit having acted foolishly. More likely she'd brazen it out as she has. So I don't think we have much reason to suppose she didn't act primarily out of fear and panic. So I think we should be charitable for time being.

anticant said...

Like all too many academics, this Ms. Spellberg appears to be a clueless, self-important biddy, if you ask me!

One of the problems about supporting free speech is that you find yourself defending all sorts of products, and artists, who you find really rather distasteful. From the description of it, this book seems to be in that category.

As a great champion of free speech [alas, now dead] once said: "A piece of low-grade rubbish must be as important to us as 'Ulysses', even though that principle may lose us both sympathy and battles".

Of course the too-numerous Muslims who are prepared to resort to violence and even murder to silence their critics have made the whole topic much more fraught than it used to be. But it is all the more a vital pivot of a free society.

Phaedrus said...

I tend to take a libertarian view on free speech issues. We should be able to say and publish whatever we want; be it conflicting views, supposed moral/amoral beliefs, and religious vs anit-religious treatises. So long as we are not directly violating other people's autonomy it should be allowed. And I think words, although powerful, are not enough to directly violate individual liberty when all individuals have the freedom to speak back with equal power.

Free speech is what keeps democracy and capitalism in check. As long as we have the ability to speak freely, government, political and religious groups, will never be able to attain enough power to control absolutely. Conflicting ideas is what makes democratic nations move forward progressively and more intelligently in their goals.

Anonymous said...

I notice (according to WSJ) that the publisher signed the contract for a two book deal for a decent sum of money. Would they have done this for a writer with no track record? At the very least I would have thought that they had an outline and possibly a few draft chapters in the bag before committing so they must have known what they were getting. After all it's listed on Amazon.

Spellberg's position of an academic writing of things Islamic should have meant that she was (a) less likely to panic (b) capable of condemning the book within her presumed remit as a reviewer as inaccurate, badly, written etc. or whatever her professional opinion was, directly to the publisher.

The timeline looks damning. Why did Spellberg not contact them first rather than stirring things up? If she was worried about safety it would have been better to get the thing quietly dropped or expurgated rather than let the world know that they were supposed to be offended by this book. Now the author of the unpublished work is at risk - after all how any of Salman Rushdies stalkers had actually read the book?

(the real anonymous)

ophelia benson said...

I like the charitable for now interpretation, because for one thing it's a consensus-disrupter, which is always useful. I now notice that I never really even considered the possibility that she was afraid - and that is of course possible.

Just for elucidation I'll explain how I've been assuming her actions made sense to her - which is that a combination of her discipline (medieval Islamic history) and her politics motivated her to want to be (as it were) sensitive to 'offense' as it pertains to Islam, and that she therefore reacted the way she thought a 'sensitive' Muslim or friend of Islam would react. In other words she was sent a book that she thought would be 'offensive' to Muslims in the same way that The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons and the novels of Taslima Nasreen are (putatively) 'offensive'; she had this privileged information, since Random House had sent her the advance proof to read, so she had a duty to 'warn' Muslims of this possible (in her view probable) 'offense' and at the same time to warn Random House of the danger. What she said to Asra Nomani seems to support that view - she was indignant about making fiction out of what she called 'sacred history.'

anticant said...

Muslims and their apologists in the West have a disproportionate sensitivity to "offence". They seek, quite understandably, to silence those who criticise them, or whom they deem to have "insulted" their faith, by implicit threats or actual violence. They seek to control through fear, while claiming they are "victims".

In an open society, all of us have to put up with being offended from time to time. It is part and parcel of living in a democracy, where dissent and debate are the warp and woof of intellectual life. This is not so in Islam - the meaning of which in Arabic is "submission".

Non-Muslims like Spellberg who collaborate with their project are known by Muslims as "dhimmis". In Cold War days they would have been called Fellow Travellers.

anticant said...

BTW, Ophelia Benson, I clicked on your name link only to be told “this web page does not exist”, so am none the wiser. However, you appear to be much more adept at reading other peoples minds and discerning their unspoken motives than I am. This “mystic meg” type of activity is not favoured by Transactional Analysts like me, who vulgarly refer to it as “mind f***ing”.

I prefer to view Ms Spellberg’s activities through the perspective of the TA Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer Drama Triangle. She sees herself as a Rescuer of Muslim sensibilities, so Persecutes Random House and the author, and ends up as a Victim of upholders of free speech. The name of her game is something like “I Was Only Trying to be Helpful.”

Stephen Law said...

Transactional analysis eh? I did a talk for a UK TA org last year. Very interesting. I liked the games, but thought the detailed theory less convincing.

I guess my view is that there are various plausible psychological accounts of why Spellberg did what she did (including anticant's and Ophelia's) that fit the data fairly well. We have here a classic case of "underdetermination of theory by data".

anticant said...

I find TA the least worst psychological theoretical framework - far more down to earth and less speculative than Freud & Co. There's a lot more to it than 'games'. And when combined with other methods such as Fritz Perls' Gestalt techniques, it's a very effective therapeutic tool.

So be warned, all you word-spinning philosophers: I am transactionally analysing your every move!

Ophelia Benson said...

Anticant - it's an outrage that the link doesn't work! Anyway my site is the one that Stephen links to at the beginning of the post.

anticant said...

Thanks, Ophelia. Are you the butterfly, or the wheel, or a butterfly on wheels?

Seriously, it's a nice site.

Anonymous said...

A further snippet appeared last night on BBC World Service News and others to the effect that the book had only just been withdrawn from publication in Serbia. there seems to been some suggestion that it had got as far as being on the shelves in the region ad had been made available in translation (not cheap).

Spellbergs actions aside - what are the publishers playing at?

Cant find text yet on BBC site - suspect it may be art of audio stream but see others


Here


and here

Cassanders said...

Of course it is difficult to speculate about other persons' motives.

However I am a bit puzzeled by the suggestion that Dr Spellberg somehow should fear for HER OWN safety when "blowing the wistle"!?

After all she was merely a reviewer of the book.

I would expect the usual tantrums (which of course could be violent) to be directed towards the author and in worst case, the publisher. (cfr Nygaard on the "Satanic Verses").

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Stephen Law said...

Hi Cassanders - but notice that Spellberg is reported to have got her lawyers involved to make sure her name was not in any way associated with the book. So she clearly was thinking that she might somehow be associated with it, and fearful of the consequences. I think this gives a little bit of support to my hypothesis that her actions were largely motivated by fear, rather than e.g. indignation, outrage, etc.

Paul Power said...

Spellman is quoted as follows:
"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."

She is the author of a book on Aisha. I am curious to know what she considers the appropriate treatment of sex between a nine year old girl and a grown man. I infer she has not condemned the sex as this would cause her more problems with Muslims than an association with the novel. Does anyone have any hard facts on this question?

Ophelia Benson said...

I'm not sure that Spellberg's getting her lawyer to tell Random House they would sue if RH associated her name with the book shows that 'clearly...she was fearful.' That's one possibility, but there are others. I think the lawsuit threat is quite compatible with her feeling indignation and outrage - it looked to me like a kind of grandstanding display of angry solidarity with The Offended of the Earth. I could be wrong about that of course.

anticant said...

In order to make an informed judgement, maybe we should put Spellman's book on Aisha on Stephen's new Book Club's reading list??

Anonymous said...

anticant - thats alright for those who happen to have been in Serbian bookshops recently. but for those who rely on Amazon and don't speak Serbo-Croat it's going to be a bit of a spectator sport.

anticant said...

Not the withdrawn book - the book by the whistle-blowing [or mullah-rousing?] academic lady - "Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr" by D.A. Spellberg [available from Amazon].

I'm curious to know what sort of an apologia she makes for Mo's sexual life, but doubt whether I can be bothered to obtain and read it.

Life [mine, anyway] is too short!

Anonymous said...

anticant - My apologies- I should read more carefully.

I note that the Spellman book has at least an excerpt available via Amazon.

anticant said...

Anonymous - yes, I think you should. Who is "Spellman"? I think you mean "Spellberg".

Paul Power said...

anticant:

Getting the name wrong was my fault. Apologies..

anticant said...

Well whatever her correct suffix she has certainly cast a spell on Sherry Jones and Random House.