14 August 2008

Refined Thoughts on A'isha-Gate

Last Sunday, I posted a rather annoyed and probably knee-jerk reaction to this whole Random House business of not publishing The Jewel of Medina for fear of reprisal from Islamic Fundamentalists. I have since refined my position a bit.

I still believe it's big-time trouble to allow religious extremists to threaten publishers/authors with violence whenever something they don't like might be printed. That's not going to change--it's a freedom of speech issue, and it's a freedom of/from religion issue. Beyond that, I'd like to address two points regarding this particular instance.

First off, I have heard the argument that Prof. Spellberg raised the alarm over the publication of the book for the sake of squashing competition with her own book on A'isha. This, I wanted to point out, is a ridiculous assertion. It just is. I'm no expert, but there is a world of differenct between academic publishing and popular publishing. There's no competition; there's no thought to competition. Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of `A'isha bint Abi Bakr, was published by Columbia University Press (in 1994, quite some time ago)--one of the more prestigious presses, mind you. This is an academic press--academic presses publish for academia, not for the public at large. Jones has written a novel and was slated to be published by Random House. These two titles couldn't be in more distant realms. I think that theory can be laid to rest.

The reason I feel the need to flog that dead horse, if it is indeed deceased, is that I think the kerfuffle regarding Spellberg's role is pointless. It would seem that in peoples' haste to fulfill their need to blame someone, Spellberg is the target because Random House is too vague--it's more of a concept than a person, and human beings can't be satisfied to watch a concept squirm. They like their squirming to come with specific names and faces. That being said, I will say that Spellberg's biggest sin, it would seem, is that she was unprofessional. She was sent a copy of the book by Random House for review purposes, and when she was done, according to this:
On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.
This is the problem. However she personally felt about the book, this should not have occurred. Whatever threat she might have seen against Muslims, it should have been taken care of when she expressed this clear disdain for the novel to the publisher and not her Muslims pals. She was unprofessional. There's no money in reviewing books in academia, so houses not sending her books over something like this isn't likely to affect her. So, forget her. She was unprofessional and let's leave her at that.

The second and infinitely more important point is as such: we have to find some sort of protocol for something like this. Upon more reflection on Random House's predictament, I imagine they were in a tough position. When you balance the publication of a novel with the fanatical and violent reaction of any religious group, the answer is very clear. You publish. But when you balance publishing a novel against the safety of your employees, that's not such an easy answer. And it's not even a matter of the publisher getting sued if someone gets hurt or killed--it's simply a matter of someone getting hurt or killed. That's serious business. While some more hardcore atheists might be willing to die for the cause (I'm not one of them), it's a little much to expect some editor out there who's used to pouring over romance novels to do it--that's neither fair, nor realistic.

So, it seems to me that instead of getting righteously pissed at Random House--which is understandable, mind you...the anger has to go somewhere--and boycotting them or what-have-you, our time and efforts could be better spent by contacting all the big publishing houses and asking them to make a concerted effort to confront these threats against life, limb, and freedom of speech in a way that's as safe and secure as they can without just throwing up their hands and saying 'we give up.' I'm sure these businesses have had their lawyers and accounts brain-storming about how not to get sued and how to maximize profits. Now, it seems to me that they could avoid even having to deal with that crap if there was some sort of accepted protocol when dealing with culturally sensitive material. Specifically, a protocol that deals with violent reactions from religious fanatics--an issue that comes with its own special problems.

I'm not an expert, and I can't imagine what that protocol could possibly be, but it seems to me that if there was one, a lot of this mess could be avoided and freedom of speech could be better preserved. So, that's what I'm suggesting. I am suggesting that publishers--large and small, really--do some in-house analysis on how to best deal with these situations, and then, come their next big conference, make one of the top priorities a coming together of all the houses and hashing out a plan of action. If there's a consensus among publisher's, the next time something comes up, we hopefully won't have to look at this kind of censorship, as I would hope that whatever they come up with would be a far cry from 'roll over.' You have to keep safety in mind, but at the same time, if you're a publishing house operating in the secular, western world...act like it.

For some listening, see Another Goddamned Podcast.

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