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We need to talk about Islam

By Alom Shaha / 10 August, 2012

Fearing extremists reacting violently to the publication of books deemed to be offensive to Islam, many publishers have thought twice about what they release about the religion. Author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook Alom Shaha says it’s time to discuss faith properly

“We can’t publish this, we’ll get firebombed.” Apparently this was the response from one of the staff at Biteback Publishing, the UK publishers of my book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, when it was first presented to them. Thankfully, Iain Dale, the managing director, laughed at the idea, saying, “it’s OK, we’re on the 10th floor” and went on to publish the book anyway.

It’s not just staff at Biteback who may have been concerned about publishing my book — according to a senior editor at one of the largest international publishers, who claimed to be personally keen to give me a deal, she was unable to convince her colleagues to agree because a “number of people” in the company would be “uncomfortable” about it. She then went on to explain that by “uncomfortable” she really meant “afraid”.

So, what is it about my book that has elicited such a response from people whose work it is to trade in ideas? Have I penned an incendiary tome that “insults” Islam or otherwise risks “offending” Muslims? Well, I don’t think I’ve done any such thing — I’ve simply written an account of how and why I came to be an atheist. It’s much less an attack on religion than it is a celebration of atheism. But the fact that it is written by someone from a Muslim background seems to have been sufficient to make some people afraid of publishing it. And that is surely an unacceptable state of affairs; we seem to have gone from a time when publishers and booksellers stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of free speech to publish and sell The Satanic Verses, despite the very real threat of violence, to a time when an entirely innocuous book like mine can be rejected for publication because people fear it will lead to violent repercussions.

Perhaps publishers cannot be blamed for being cautious? After all, as recently as September 2008 the offices of Gibson Square were indeed firebombed just as it was about to publish The Jewel of Medina, a fictional account of the life of Mohammed’s youngest wife, by Sherry Jones. But, as both Kenan Malik and Nick Cohen have described elsewhere, the firebombing may not have been caused so much by the “offensive” nature of the book as much as by the fact that the book was publicly announced to be offensive by a Western and non-Muslim academic. It may have been the case that the book would largely have been ignored by Muslims had it not been for the publicity generated by this — having been pronounced offensive, it then almost required at least one fanatic to act. Jones believes that “If Random House had simply published my book, I don’t think there would have been any trouble. The real problem is not that Muslims are offended but that people think they will be.”

I’ve encountered the idea that Muslims will be offended by my book from numerous people — from the publishers who looked at my proposal to the people who have interviewed me since publication and even from some friends. The only people who have not suggested that the book might be offensive to Muslims are Muslims themselves. Not a single Muslim has come forward to say that he or she has been offended by my book. The most strongly worded email I’ve received is one that expressed pity that I had “lost the one truth path” and the hope that “Allah would guide [me] back to it”.

Many of my childhood friends are Muslims and none of them has taken offence at the book. And this should come as no surprise. The idea that Muslims are particularly sensitive to criticism is one that has been blown out of all proportion. It is patronising to ordinary Muslims like my friends and it is one that has created an insidious climate of self-censorship amongst people who really should know better.

We need to talk about Islam, not because of some misguided notion that it threatens our western way of life but because we cannot ignore a set of ideas which holds such importance to so many people. Islam must be critiqued just as other ideas are, but perhaps even more importantly, Muslims and non-Muslims alike must have access to diverse points of views if public discourse about these matters is to be meaningful and well-informed. The publication of my book by Biteback was not brave, nor was it an attempt to court controversy for the sake of book sales. Rather, it was a decision made by people who love books and ideas, who felt that my story was one worth telling and that it would find an audience — and this, surely, is the only consideration publishers should have when deciding whether or not to publish a book.

Alom Shaha is a writer, science teacher, filmmaker and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. He tweets from @alomshaha

MORE ON THIS THEME:

Kenan Malik wrote about the impact of the Satanic Verses controversy on free expression and Islam for Index on Censorship magazine in 2008. Read his article here 

Jewel of Medina author Sherry Jones wrote for Index on Censorship about fears over distributing her 2008 novel about prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha. Read her article here 

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