Will “The Jewel of Medina” create another Rushdie affair?

Proposed cover for The Jewel of MedinaAre we headed for another “Rushdie affair” over the yet-to-be-published novel The Jewel of Medina? First an American publisher withdrew its plan to publish the novel about A’isha, the child bride of the Prophet Mohammad, out of fear of a backlash from Islamist radicals. Then a British publisher announced he had bought the rights and would print the once feared historical novel“. Now comes the news that the publisher’s London office has been the target of an arson attack and police have arrested three men on suspicion of terrorism.

Some early signs are not encouraging. The Daily Telegraph quotes Anjem Choudhary, a radical cleric based in Ilford in east London, as saying: “It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty.” While his unbending interpretation of Muslim law is certainly debatable, his warning that publication of the novel could cause further protests is not.

On the other hand, Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inayat Bunglawala wrote last week that the mood among British Muslims had changed since they clamoured for Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to be banned. “Is this rethinking now widespread amongst British Muslims? Yes, my impression is that it certainly is with many now accepting that the Satanic Verses affair served to create (and for others reinforce) the unfortunate view that Muslims were backward, anti-intellectual, prone to violence and saw themselves as being somehow above the law,” he wrote.

“It is painful to admit it, but on the need to uphold the freedom to offend, Rushdie was right. The consequences of not doing so should be apparent by now to Muslims above all. Earlier this year, the leader of the far right Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, called for the Qur’an to be banned because he found some passages in the book offensive. And there’s the rub. Who is to decide what is offensive or not? What may be offensive to me may be just harmless fun to you and vice versa.”

Pakistani Islamists burn effigy of Rushdie after he was knighted, 17 June 2007/Asim TanveerThere’s a lot of political manipulation behind these “spontaneous” outbursts of violence against anyone accused of blaspheming Mohammad (as we saw in the Danish cartoons controversy). There are also ways of trying to counter this. The failure of Wilders’ much-hyped film Fitna to incite anti-Muslim tension in the Netherlands is a case in point. None other than the top Dutch counterterrorism official noted that the debate preceding the film’s premiere helped bring Christian and Muslim groups together to discuss their views and maintain calm when the film was aired.

Amr Khaled sees good side of Danish Mohammad cartoon row

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThe Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad were widely condemned in the Muslim world and led to violent protests, attacks on embassies and even deaths. Even in recent days, they have continued to stir more protest (in Pakistan) and create security problems (in Afghanistan). They have set off a kind of “clash of civilisations” with a Muslim side denouncing them as blasphemy and a western side defending them as freedom of speech. The whole dispute has been extremely polarising.

Now one of the most popular preachers in the Middle East, Egypt’s Amr Khaled, has said there were positive sides to the uproar. The caricatures “were useful for Muslims and the Islamic world” because they prompted Muslims to stand up for the Prophet and for Islam, the television preacher told the German news agency dpa on Monday. The dispute “charged the batteries of Muslim youths, strengthened their faith and got them to stand up actively for their religion.”

Can a controversy that polarises people and leads to death and destruction be “useful” for a religion?

Danish artist aimed turban bomb cartoon at “spiritual dynamite”

“I have no problems with Muslims. I made a cartoon which was aimed at the terrorists who use an interpretation of Islam as their spiritual dynamite.”

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, Sept. 2006 file photo/Preben Hupfeld/ScanpixKurt Westergaard, the Danish artist who drew the “turban bomb” cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad that sparked violent protests across the Muslim world, says he has no regrets about the caricature that changed his life. He lives under death threats that seem to be more than just words; last month, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service arrested three men suspected of planning to kill him. But, as he told our Copenhagen senior correspondent Kim McLaughlin, the cartoons sparked off a debate that Muslims must face if Islam is to integrate into western societies.

Read the whole interview here. Is this the way to view this issue — a turban bomb cartoon against the “spritual dynamite” of radical Islamism?