Leading British writers including Monica Ali, Nadeem Aslam and Hanif Kureishi have offered their support to Martin Rynja, the independent publisher who has been targeted by religious extremists.
On the morning of 27 September petrol bombs were pushed through the letterbox of Rynja’s publishing house, Gibson Square. Police subsequently arrested three men and a woman under the Terrorism Act 2000. It is alleged that they opposed Gibson Square’s publication of The Jewel of Medina, a novel by Sherry Jones describing the relationship between the Prophet Mohammed and his first wife, Aisha.
In a statement issued by English PEN, Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers, said: ‘Words have to be answered by words, not firebombs.’
The Jewel of Medina was originally due to be published in the United States by Random House, who withdrew the book after Denise Spellberg, a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, described the work as ‘soft-core pornography’.
The author, Sherry Jones, rejects this, saying: ‘it is in no way an accurate description of my book. There are no sex scenes in it.’ Nonetheless, Muslim groups in the UK have urged Rynja to cancel the book’s publication on 30 October. See http://www.ramadhanfoundation.com/aishanovel.htm.
Gibson Square has previously published work which mainstream publishers have shunned, such as the controversial House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger, which was threatened with libel by powerful Saudi families, and Blowing Up Russia by Alexander Litvinenko. Martin Rynja has said that ‘in an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear.’ However, his diverse list also includes books about France, wine and philosophy.
Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, said: ‘It has become a commonplace to argue that in a diverse society behaving “responsibly” means limiting our freedom of speech, in due consideration of the feelings of outrage that may thereby be provoked. This is short-sighted in the extreme. In the long term, no group can maintain a monopoly of outrage. Do we want to face a future in which groups vie for censorship according to their mutually exclusive beliefs, where free speech is held to ransom and the currency is fear?’
Hanif Kureishi CBE said: ‘To attempt censorship by violence and hooliganism serves no one. Stories about the prophet have long been in circulation. He hardly needs this kind of protection.’
Salil Tripathi said: ‘The saddest part of this attack is the inevitability of it. There are simpler ways of opposing a book you don’t like: ignore it, don’t read it, argue with it.’
Lisa Appignanesi, President of English PEN, said: ‘An open society in which people of all faiths and none can live side by side is underpinned by the freedom to publish, to write, to read and to think without fear of reprisal or intimidation. Martin Rynja’s publishing list is both broad and brave. To attempt to stop the appearance of a contested novel by criminal acts only plays into the hands of those who would like to brand all Muslims as terrorists. The fact that those few extremists who threw the petrol bomb are ‘glorified’ by being held under the terrorism act only polarizes our society further.
Hari Kunzru said: ‘Calling for books such as these to be banned or censored shows a lack of confidence over the subject matter. The only response to freedom of speech is more freedom of speech and the right to criticise and produce better books. Let pen fight with pen. Artistic licence is required to explore perceived wisdoms and ask new questions from different angles to reveal new insights. These insights are stunted if artistic licence is limited by the intimidation of extremists.’
To read ‘A novel approach’ by Asim Siddiqui, please click here.
Notes for Editors
· English PEN is a registered charity (number 1125610).
· English PEN promotes literature and freedom of expression through a range of educational programmes, events and publications.
· English PEN was at the forefront of the campaign to amend the Religious Hatred Bill and repeal the blasphemy laws in order to give Britain’s diverse contemporary society equality before the law.
Media enquiries please contact Jonathan Heawood, email@example.com
To read Salil Tripathi’s article ‘Firebombing Free Speech’, please click here.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/offence/thejewelofmedina/