Fearing violence, publisher drops novel

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

WASHINGTON - Once upon a time, Sherry Jones was a Montana newspaper reporter who dreamed she could contribute to world peace with a novel about the prophet Muhammad and his feminist leanings. Then she wrote it. Today? She's the target of a Serbian mufti and a Middle Eastern studies professor with a lawyer.

Life has been a roller coaster lately for Jones, 46, who went from being a Book-of-the-Month Club pick to seeing her novel dropped by Random House, which said in a statement it had received "cautionary advice" that the fictionalized story of one of Muhammad's wives might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

A Random House spokeswoman said she could not think of any other time the company had canceled a book because of such fears.

Jones and her novel, "The Jewel of Medina," are subjects of debate from Egypt to Italy to Serbia, where 1,000 Serbian-language copies were printed before the local publisher backed out, too.

Ironically, Jones began with a pro-Islamic mind-set when she began writing the novel in 2002. After the Sept. 11 attacks led her to an interest in the Taliban, she began to research the status of women under Islam. And she came to a conclusion: Muhammad supported more rights for women than do many of his modern followers.

"I wanted to tell the story of the women around Muhammad, and to honor them and him as well," Jones said this week from Spokane, Wash., where she lives and writes about environmental issues for the Bureau of National Affairs.

She started writing a fictionalized story of Aisha, a young and much-beloved wife of Muhammad. Seven drafts later, in April 2007, Random House gave Jones a $100,000 contract for "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel.

"Jewel" was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for August 2008, and Random House's imprint, Ballantine Books, named it one of their featured books.

All was well until April 30, when one reviewer hit the alarm switch. Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas and has written about Aisha, called her own editor - at Knopf, another Random House imprint - to say the book was inflammatory and problematic.

Carol Schneider, the Random House spokeswoman, said that after hearing from Spellberg, the company called security consultants and Islamic scholars, "all but one of whom expressed strong concern."

Though the book is fiction, Schneider said, Spellberg's criticisms were relevant: "Denise is a historian, but what she brought up wasn't historical inaccuracies but inflammatory passages."

On May 21, Ballantine called Jones to say the Aug. 12 publishing date should be postponed. Days later, publication was canceled.

"This has taught me something I've been trying to learn my whole life," Jones said. "To accept life as it happens. I'm not in control of any of this."

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