Sense and sensitivity
14 Aug 2008

There really are no genuine excuses for Random House’s withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, writes Padraig Reidy

I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to find the 1977 film Mohammad, Messenger of God in its entirety on YouTube.

For those of you unaware of the film, it’s a historical epic starring Anthony Quinn as the prophet Mohammed’s uncle Hamza, while the starring role of Mohammed goes to, well, no one.

Likewise, Khadija, Aisha, Hafsah and the other wives, and the rest of the prophet’s immediate family, including sons-in-law. In a neat trick, perhaps later picked up by the makers of Peep Show, scenes which demand Mohammed’s presence are presented through his eyes, thereby negating the need to portray him. A little light organ music also helps denote the prophet.

The film was a moderate success, garnering an Academy Award nomination for its soundtrack, and can still be bought on VHS in many Islamic shops (at least in my part of the world) today.

Sadly, even this ultra-respectful portrayal of Mohammed and the early days of Islam did not pass without controversy. In March 1977, a group of American Muslims took control of three buildings in Washington DC, demanding among other things that the film, which they believed to be sacrilegious, be banned from US cinemas. The siege ended with the deaths of two people, a young radio reporter and a police officer.

As I’ve said, the film is still available, and popular, today, so it would seem that the actions of this small group in Washington DC did not reflect the views of most of the Muslim people around the world, who seem to have been able to grasp the basic concept that if you don’t like the sound of a film, you probably shouldn’t watch it (and of course, if you do like the sound of it, go see it).

I’m quite sure that the top brass at Random House apply this principle to themselves, unerringly sophisticated people as they must be. So why, in the case of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, can they not imagine their fellow men to be equally discerning?

Two reasons — or perhaps one: the first the nice, obvious line, is ‘sensitivity’. No one in their right minds is opposed to sensitivity, are they? No. Being mindful of other people’s feelings is A Good Thing. Not pushing your opinions, or indeed values, certainly helps in the smooth running of a society. Which is why, enthusiastic about pork products as many of us may be, it’s only neo-Nazis who lob pig’s blood at mosques or synagogues. But we should be wary of crossing the line between sensitivity and self-censorship.

The other reason, and, in truth, the single, underlying reason, is fear. Fear of the marauding Muslims looking for any excuse to burn a few effigies and bomb a few buildings. And this is the far more worrying aspect. In the minds of far too many in the western world, ‘the Muslim’ is driven by deep, irrational, unknowable passions. And by ‘the Muslim’, ‘all Muslims’ is meant. The Muslim takes his religion far, far more seriously than any other: ‘the Muslim’ is quick to take up arms, to denounce, to hate in the name of his faith. The Muslim is closed to critical thinking.

This is, of course, a very convenient trick: once one has displayed one’s understanding of ‘the Muslim’s’ psyche, one doesn’t actually have to go any further: you understand the Muslim world now, so you don’t actually have to understand the difference between Hizb ut Tahrir and Jamaat e Islami, or Hamas and Hezbollah, and you certainly don’t have to attempt to comprehend the millions of Muslims who bear allegiance to none of these groups. You don’t have to look at the motivations, reasons, and politics behind, say, the Salman Rushdie fatwa or the MoToons riots because you know that the spirit of ‘the Muslim’ is unknowable. And you can condemn anyone who does try to decipher the politics, or who dissents from your paragon of angry, placard-waving, flag-burning Muslim as an Uncle Tom or a neo-con (because, apparently, in today’s world, the opposite of Muslim is neo-conservative).

Of course, those who would support the suppression of Jones’s book, or at least call for greater sensitivity, may point out that the riots over the MoToons did happen, and that people did die because of The Satanic Verses. Is it worth risking all that over again, just to publish a book that mightn’t, y’know, be even that good?

Well, possibly not: but possibly they are looking at the wrong examples. Earlier this year, Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders announced that he was to release a short film called Fitna, which would critique the Quran and expose its sadistic nature, as well as the dangers of the ‘Islamification’ of Europe. After much fuss, and to and fro, Fitna eventually appeared on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, it was rubbish. Perhaps more surprisingly, very little happened next. A few Muslim governments made the token gesture of banning it, and a few weeks later, everyone had forgotten about the whole sorry thing: the political groups that had organised the MoToons riots simply could not muster the support: in short, people refused to be wound up by such an obvious wind-up. A sign of maturity that one hopes could be matched by one of the world’s largest publishing houses.

Padraig Reidy

One response to “Sense and sensitivity”

  1. J says:

    There is the distinct probability that ‘Jewel’ is also rubbish, and that pretending fear has made you drop its publication acts as excellent publicity for the book once it is eventually published.