Are 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.”
There’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.