Islamic intimidation trumps liberty again

Journalist Sherry Jones, 46, had worked for a decade at the Montana Missoulian when she went back to school and, in 2006, earned her bachelor's degree in English and creative writing from the University of Montana.

She began reading about women in the Middle East while preparing her honors thesis. Ms. Jones decided the story of Aisha, child bride of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia, would make a good novel.

She spent five years and seven drafts perfecting her "exciting tale of love, war, spiritual awakening and redemption." Although Ms. Jones has never been to the Middle East, she took two years of Arabic language classes and gathered every book she could find to make her novel historically accurate.

Her hard work seemed to have paid off. Random House, largest English-language publisher in the world, liked the book enough to give Jones a $100,000 contract not just for the one book, but also for a sequel. "The Jewel of Medina" also was destined to be a Book of the Month selection, followed by distribution through the Quality Paperback Book Club. Lots of folks seemed to like it. Foreign rights sales were coming in from Europe.

Then the publicity folks at Random House sent a galley of the book to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, also under contract with Random House's Knopf subsidiary -- hoping for a positive blurb.

Instead, Ms. Spellberg went ballistic.

"Denise says it is 'declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue,' " an editor at Knopf wrote in an e-mail that made the rounds at Random House. "She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the buildings and staff and widespread violence. Thinks it will be far more controversial than 'The Satanic Verses' and the Danish cartoons ... thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."

So that's just what Random House did.

Mind you, there have been no threats or protests from any actual Muslims. But because the editors at Random House are afraid some Muslim, somewhere, might be offended by the book, they've told Ms. Jones to keep her $100,000 -- and her manuscript.

Plenty of Christians were upset when "The Da Vinci Code" speculated that Jesus fathered the children of Mary Magdalene, who later emigrated to France and founded that nation's ruling line -- a considerably more far-fetched theory than Ms. Jones' assertion that Aisha lived in a harem before becoming Muhammad's bride, as would have been typical for her time.

No fear of offending Christian radicals disrupted Doubleday's plan to publish -- and make millions -- from Dan Brown's potboiler.

But Random House says in a recent statement it first decided to postpone publication, and then reached a termination agreement with Ms. Jones, because of "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

Last week Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial "The Satanic Verses," came to Ms. Jones' defense. Mr. Rushdie's book caused an uproar among Muslims around the world, who contended the novel insulted Islam. It led to a death decree in 1989 from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and forced the author for years to live under police protection.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Rushdie said, "I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author's novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed."

Random House is a private company. It has a right to publish or not publish whatever it pleases, of course.

Is it significant, here, that Random House has been owned since 1998 by the large German media corporation Bertelsmann? Quite possibly. This cowardice, this reluctance to stand up for free-speech rights against even the remote possibility of offending some Muslim with a rusty sword to wave, somewhere, certainly seems more European than American.

One wonders if Random House will soon order all female employees to start wearing burqas, "just in case."

As Neville Chamberlain proved at Munich, nothing more emboldens a would-be tyrant than to knuckle under to his whims and demands, rather than standing up and calling his bluff.