“Aren’t you scared?” I get asked this question all the time, most recently in the wake of the news that three radical extremist Muslim men conspired to set fire to the home office of Gibson Square, the London publisher that had been set to publish my novel The Jewel of Medina last October.
The full story of this attack is unnerving, to say the least. The driver of the getaway cab, Abbas Taj, is noted for dressing his baby girl in an “I Love al-Qaeda” hat, among other public displays of support for terrorism. According to the Times, he waved banners at protests against the infamous Danish cartoons promising a 9/11 in Europe and calling for death to those who “insult Islam”
Taj’s two accomplices pleaded guilty last month to the so-called “firebombing” and admitted that plans to publish “The Jewel of Medina” were the reason why.
The response to the attack in Britain was quite amazing. Apparently eager to give credibility to the most extreme of the extremists, some journalists contacted Anjem Choudary, a noted radical who predicted the “death penalty” for me and my publishers, apparently without reading my book.
As anyone who has read The Jewel of Medina knows, it does not insult Islam — a fact that enrages Islamophobes enough to have one radio talk-show host calling me a “wack job”, among other similarly flattering names.
Whether or not my book is respectful, however, has little to do with the real issue here. For, although the extremists lost in court, they have apparently won where it really counts — in the UK’s book stores.
After Gibson Square’s publisher announced, a couple of weeks after the arson attempt, that he was indefinitely postponing publication of The Jewel of Medina — following in the footsteps of Random House in the US — I awarded world English publication rights to Beaufort Books, my US publishing house whose publisher and small staff have supported my book unwaveringly, despite hate mail, lawsuit threats, and Mr Choudary’s own assertion that not only I, but my publishers, might deserve to die.
Beaufort publisher Eric Kampmann and associate publisher Margot Atwell headed to the London Book Fair in April with a full display of The Jewel of Medina and confidence that they would find the right distributor to supply stores in the UK with the book. But — no. Everyone, it seems, is too afraid.
Forget the fact that The Jewel of Medina has been published in seven countries, including Denmark, with no threats or repercussions of any kind. Well, ok. In Serbia a conservative mufti protested the book two days after its release last August and issued threats grave enough to cause my publisher there to withdraw it from publication. But that mufti hadn’t read The Jewel of Medina because he merely repeated false rumours that the book contains “brutal acts of pornography”.
The people of Serbia spoke loudly and clearly against censorship. So did the press, and other groups including moderate Muslims. Beobook re-released the sold-out The Jewel of Medina one month after it discontinued publication, and it rocketed to the top of the country’s best-seller lists, where it remained for at least four months. It’s still selling so well that Aleksandar Jasic anticipates a fifth printing in June.
What made the difference in Serbia? The memory of fascist dictator Slobodan Milosevic apparently remains fresh in the public consciousness. Freedom of speech is the same as freedom: “We believe that this kind of censorship is very dangerous – the next step is that any crazy group in the world can threaten to kill someone if the book/article/picture is published,” an editor at the Serbian daily newspaper Blic said to me.
Despite the efforts of extremist groups, The Jewel of Medina has not been banned in the UK. Nor should it be, in spite of the country’s crackdown on those seen as an insult to Islam. The book isn’t insulting. I had hoped it would be a bridge-builder between non-Muslims and Muslims — something it appears the UK could really use right now.
These three Muslim thugs who tried to torch the British people’s right to read a book would be easy to shrug off as isolated cases, as simple bullies. The fact is, though, that soon after that attack, extremist groups in the UK exerted an organised effort to keep The Jewel of Medina out of British bookstores. Luke Johnson, chairman of Borders UK, wrote in the Financial Times online that his company had received threats that it would “suffer” if Borders UK sold The Jewel of Medina. Check it out at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f0cfbbc8-a559-11dd-b4f5-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1.
“Surely, in a civilised society, we cannot allow thuggish behaviour to intimidate us. Otherwise we could all end up being tyrannised by violent and vocal minorities, cowed into submission in pursuit of a comfortable life. How then would humanity and invention progress?” Mr Johnson wrote.
The implication is that, given the opportunity, Borders UK would, indeed, sell The Jewel of Medina. Unfortunately, it seems, they won’t have the chance in the near future. The “thugs” have accomplished their task — and freedom of speech, the first freedom to go when fascism gets a foothold, has taken a blow in the western world.
Unless the people of Great Britain, and the press, follow Serbia’s lead and speak out against those who are limiting their right to read, think, speak, listen, debate, discuss, criticise and, yet, insult. After all, those who would stop free speech and expression for the rest of us certainly feel they have the right to make threats and to incite violence. It’s ironic that their voices, used to squelch dissent, are the ones being heard, and heeded, the most. I hope the people of the UK can find the power, and the courage, to raise an outcry against censorship.
“Use it, or lose it,” the saying goes. Extremists are using — abusing, even —their right to free speech. Now it’s time for the rest of us, including moderate Muslims and the press, who cherish our culture and our freedom to raise a cry louder than that of radicals, so we don’t lose that most precious, and crucial of freedoms.
Am I afraid? Sure, I’ve had some dark nights since the controversy erupted over my book. Getting hate mail and death threats and having nuts call for your assassination online is very unnerving. But then I shake it off. Some things are worse than death. And if we give in to intimidation and threats — to fear — we lose everything. So, as I’ve said before, I try to think not about how I’ll die, but about how I want to live: with courage, with love, and with a voice that speaks loudly, and clearly, for freedom.