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Author shocked by 'Jewel of Medina' controversy

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Associated Press

Sherry Jones knew it would be hard to get her first novel published. Getting "The Jewel of Medina" into bookstores was even harder. "I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam," author Sherry Jones says of "Jewel of Medina."


After overcoming the formidable hurdles any new author faces, Jones was overjoyed to sell the book to Random House. Then Random House canceled its publication at the last minute for fear the historical novel about Aisha, child bride of the prophet Muhammad, would incite riots in the Muslim world.


"I had hoped to find an independent publisher with gumption and verve that would treat me as a partner in the publishing process," said Jones, a longtime newspaper reporter in Montana who moved to Spokane, Washington about a year ago.



She got the idea for the book after the terrorist acts of September 11. Determined to learn more about Islam, she read books on the religion and came across the story of Aisha, who became Muhammad's third wife as well as a leading scholar and warrior in the early days of the religion.


Aisha was 9 when she became Muhammad's wife. She's often described as Muhammad's favorite wife, and it was in her company that Muhammad received the most revelations. During a period of war after Muhammad's death, Aisha raised an army which confronted her rival Ali outside the city of Basra.


Aisha's forces were defeated, and she was captured and returned to Medina. There, she became one of the top scholars of Islam's early age, with some historians crediting her with one-quarter of Islamic religious law. She died at 65.


"I became obsessed with thoughts of Aisha," Jones said. Jones, who describes herself as spiritual but not part of an organized religion, figured her book would help build bridges between the cultures.


Random House, the nation's largest publisher, liked the idea enough to give her a $100,000 advance for "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel, which Jones has also written.


"It was a dream come true," said the 46-year-old Jones, who spent five years and seven drafts on the first book.


She was not naive. She knew an American woman writing a novel about Muhammad and Aisha would spark some controversy. But she expected her good intentions would be obvious.


"Anyone who reads the book will not be offended," Jones said. "I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam."


A copy of the novel was sent to Denise Spellberg, an author and Islam expert at the University of Texas, seeking a cover blurb.


Spellberg called the novel a "declaration of war" and "a national security issue" that might incite violence. She also called the book "soft-core pornography," referring to a scene involving Muhammad consummating his marriage to Aisha. (Spellberg did not return telephone calls and e-mail from The Associated Press.) Jones was shocked and angered.


"Her characterization of my book as pornography created a self-fulfilling prophecy," Jones said. "I don't know why she used the most inflammatory rhetoric to describe my book."


Random House, worried about the response, decided in May to cancel the publication, although the news was not released to the general public until August when the publisher issued a statement saying that "credible and unrelated sources" had warned that the book "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."


That story drew a response from author Salman Rushdie, who criticized his publisher for pulling the novel. Rushdie, whose "The Satanic Verses" led to a death decree in 1989 from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and forced the author for years to live under police protection, said Random House had allowed itself to be intimidated.


"I was impressed," Jones said of Rushdie's comment.


Random House drew other criticism. The Langum Charitable Trust, which awards lucrative literary prizes, said the company was too easily intimidated. "Random House has exhibited a degree of cowardly self-censorship that seriously threatens the American public's access to the free marketplace of ideas," the trust said.


Jones was devastated by the cancellation. She and her agent negotiated an agreement with Random House so the book could be marketed to other U.S. publishers.


Last week, Beaufort Books bought it. "Everyone at Beaufort is proud to be associated with this groundbreaking novel." company President Eric Kampmann said.


Earlier, Gibson Square agreed to publish the book in England. Not publishing the book "would truly mean that the clock has been turned back to the dark ages," Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja said.


Jones has received some harsh e-mail and has taken down her Web site, but said she has received no direct threats.


Ironically, some critics complained she was being too positive about Muhammad and Islam. "People see what they want to see," she said.


Jones was an Air Force brat who lived in many places growing up. She spent 20 years in Montana, which she considers home, graduating from the University of Montana's creative writing program. She moved to Spokane about a year ago.


She has become something of a celebrity. This week she left for Norway, where she will be the featured speaker on the freedom of speech panel at the Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism conference in Lillehammer.



But she didn't set out to be a free speech crusader. Rather, she wanted to write about women's empowerment, peace and hope, Jones said. She's kicking around the idea of writing her next book about Lady Godiva, the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest the high taxes imposed by her husband on his tenants.


(Pic: Book cover in Malay language published by PTS)