On Intellectual Ethics

The story

From ‘You Still Can’t Write
About Muhammad’
by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal.

A journalist named Sherry Jones wrote a historical novel about Aisha, who was married to Mohammed when she was 6, though he waited until she was 9 before having sex with her. The novel was due to be published this August; last April Random House sent it to several people for comment, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Jones has put Spellberg on the list because she had read Spellberg’s book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr. Spellberg thought the book was terrible; on April 30 she called Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in her classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site. Amanullah says she was upset and that she told him the novel ‘made fun of Muslims and their history’; she asked him to ‘warn Muslims.’

Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Spellberg (who is under contract with Knopf to write Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an).

“She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence,” Ms. Garrett wrote. “Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war…explosive stuff…a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.”

Random House also received a letter from Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name were associated with the novel.

Spellberg told the WSJ reporter, ‘”I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,'” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”


The question

B&W is asking academics, journalists, free speech advocates and the like the following question:

Given the Wall Street Journal’s account, what do you think of Spellberg’s actions?

Stephen Law

The qualification, “Given the Wall Street’s account” is important. It’s difficult to be sure, on the basis of a newspaper article containing second-hand quotes, precisely what Spellberg said and did. She may have been subtly or not so subtly misunderstood. I would be wary of launching any sort of attack on Spellberg on the basis of just this evidence.

If Spellberg did not like the book, then of course she should be free to say so. She should also be free to warn the publisher that, in her opinion, its publication is likely to result in violence. Certainly, that information shouldn’t be denied the publisher, should it? If Spellberg knew the book would probably provoke violence, it would be irresponsible of her to keep that information form the publisher, particularly as that seems to be have been one of the publishers concerns.

Again, if Spellberg is being asked her opinion on whether it is wise to publish, given this threat, and her view is that it’s not, she should be free to say so. We don’t want to curtail Spellberg’s freedom of speech in order to defend freedom of speech, do we? I wouldn’t want to censor Spellberg’s views; nor would I encourage her to censor herself.

However, if the news report is accurate, it seems that Spellberg went further. The phone call to Amanullah asking him to “warn Muslims” is peculiar. Why would she do that? Deliberately drawing widespread Muslim attention to the book – indeed “warning” them via a Muslim website – is obviously likely to provoke exactly the violent response she wants to avoid. My guess is that Spellberg was, at this point, panicking about her own safety, and doing whatever she could publicly to dissociate herself from the book lest violent Muslims later pronounce her guilty by association. If so, that doesn’t reflect quite so well on her.

As for Spellberg’s views – well, mine differ. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be silenced by violent religious zealots. The more of us are prepared to stand together and say, “No – we will say what we want”, rather than just pathetically cave in to the nutters, the better.

But that’s a criticism of Spellberg’s views, not her actions, which is what the above question specifically addresses. Actually, most of what Spellberg did, I have no problem with. True, the alleged contacting of Amanullah to “warn Muslims” doesn’t reflect well on Spellberg. But of course, we can’t be 100% sure that this even happened as described (perhaps Amanullah’s account of what Spellberg said is not entirely accurate). At this point, I’d give Spellberg the benefit of the doubt.

Stephen Law is senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is the author of several books, including The War for Children’s Minds.

R. Joseph Hoffmann

One of these things is not like the other. Apud Professor Spellberg: ‘”I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’ the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.” A cynic would say, “But isn’t that precisely what Katzanzakis, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Dan Brown, and Denys Arcand and, for all I know, even what the author of the Gospel of Judas did (and lived to see another day)? And an historian would say that the same uncrictical bias that immunizes the Islamic tradition from the kind of historical scrutiny that has been applied to the gospels (and other bits of the Bible) for two centuries is not just an example of special pleading but an illustration of a crisis in critical thinking.

It is an unclosely-guarded secret in religious studies, for example, that part of the atoning process for an overemphasis on the western biblical tradition from the fifties to the dawn of the millennium has been to “pluralize” college religious studies programs: more Buddhism, more Tao, and recently, more Muhammad. There is nothing wrong with giving “other men’s faiths” (the title of a standard DWEMish primer from the sixties) the position they deserve. It’s long overdue. But the Spellberg episode reveals something more troubling in the suggestion that this epsode in the Prophet’s life – which, dripping with legend as it is, and composed as much of folkloristic snippets as of hard fact – constitutes a “sacred history” that cannot be used for fictional embellishment. Evidently the measure of unacceptability here is the potential to do harm – crying “fire” in a crowded bookstore? If this is the measure, then any commentary, scholarly or literary – the Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, Daniel Pipes’s musings – that deviates from the axiom that Islam is unlike other religions, and must therefore employ a methodology for understanding and interpretation different from those we use to analzye those religions, has to be rejected. There are two problems with this approach. Historically, we have developed (since the much maligned Enlightenment) a canon of principles that depend on the principle of analogy. We know more about how religions originated and how they “work” because of similarities in the structures of belief and our ability to analyze those similaritities. We have not developed methods for analyzing exceptions asserted to transcend the rules. (The uniqueness of Islam falls into the same category as the resurrection of Jesus, according to believers who cling to the doctrine of exceptionalism). Second, the idea of a “sacred history” is a term that belongs to theology and phenomenology of religion. The claims made by believers in a tradition can be understood as telling us something about the religion, and for social scientists even something about the person holding the belief. But the belief in a “final prophet” and the belief that Jesus is the “Way, the truth and the life,” and that no one comes to the Father except through him, are not historical claims. They are religious claims.

In fairness, I have not read Professor Spellberg’s book on Aisha, but I have no reason to doubt that it is a work of substance. I am however unaware of any recent discoveries that would lift the discussion of this relationship between the Prophet and his young bride out of the fog that permits people, friendly and unfriendly to Islam, to exploit its implications. (“And some say it was the curtain from her tent that the Prophet used as his battle standard.”) I am also aware of a well-established trend in religious (and other) scholarship that exploits the historical ambiguity to turn fog into stone. In biblical stuides, the Gospel of Judas and the Talpiot Tomb “discovery” (the burial site of Jesus and his family?) is being used in that way, almost as though the line between serious scholarship and fiction has become irrelevant. If Sherry Jones’s book is that bad, then let’s have it and let historians, not growling mullahs, be the judge of its value.

Joseph Hoffmann is a historian of religion at the State University of New York at Buffalo; his latest book is The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, editor.

Nick Cohen:

The cult of the dissident is one of the most absurd in academia. Intellectuals with conformist views and security of tenure talk as if the Bush administration could at any moment send the FBI to arrest them. Suppose, however, that the authorities were to tell the University of Texas that Ms Spellberg was unfit to teach the students of a liberal democracy -they would have an embarrassment of evidence if they did. Or imagine them ordering her to appear before a reconstituted House of Un-American Activities Committee in Washington D.C. How would she defend herself? She would, I am sure, argue that she is a free woman in a free country who is entitled to express her opinions, however unpopular they may be. If others found her ideas ‘upsetting,’ or ‘very bad,’ then they would just have to live with their anger and accept that the battle of ideas is necessary and desirable in a free society. If the government were to claim that she might inspire terrorist attacks against the University of Texas, she would reply that the government had a duty to arrest the criminals and defend the right to free speech guaranteed in the Constitution.

In short, she would appeal to the very principles of freedom of expression, thought and publication she so comprehensively and maliciously trashed.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Observer and the author of What’s Left?.

Daphne Patai:

Her actions are silly and only succeed in calling attention to a book she disapproves of. Someone else will publish it and it will sell even more copies as a result of this non-event.

If everybody acted on the same principle and all the books one or another group (and why only groups? aren’t groups made up of individuals?) might find offensive are taken off the market, or never published to begin with, there won’t be much left to read. This hardly makes the world a better place.

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; her newest book is What Price Utopia?: Essays on Ideological Policing.

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