Author’s Note: I decided to write this disclaimer after I finished writing this post for the sole purpose of encouraging anyone wishing to comment on the post or the subject matter that there is a need to read the post all the way through. It should also be noted that I have not read the novel but that is not the point of this post. Thanks.
Free speech is a difficult course to maneuver. The brewing controversy of the historical-fiction novel, “The Jewel of Medina”, depicting Ai’isha (ra), the youngest wife of the Prophet (pbuh), provides one of those moments where you have to sit back and ponder the philosophical aspects of free speech. It’s a timely query given that the world just marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression for every human being on this planet.
Everyone has a position when it comes to free speech. Everyone mentally draws arbitrary red lines and fights for them. What is considered permissible for one person to say may be a breaking point for another. We grapple with this issue from time to time in our own lives. What to say and what not to say in certain moments, in certain social settings, amidst a certain audience. Work, school, life. Even when it comes to designing a suitable commenting policy on this little blog, free speech is at the center of my own internal debate, and it is one that evolves until a certain compromise is reached. A social contract.
And therein lies the key word perhaps: compromise.
As human beings, our lives are lived based on a series of compromises we choose to make on a daily basis. Again, even this compromise has an arbitrary nature to it, but nevertheless, we draw lines in order to compromise; in order to find an unwritten, unspoken middle ground where most parties are satisfied with the end result. The exception to this rule is the metaphorical mad man who scream racist obscenities on the street corner as people pass him by. Outcast. Excommunicated. Exiled for the lack of willingness (or ability) to compromise.
We make compromises because, in short, as human beings, we would rather live a life where we don’t annoy one another. It is the only way to get along on this planet.
But the arbitrary nature of this alone must be a living nightmare for free-speech advocates. What do we fight for? Is it the right to speak? Ah. But what about what is being said? Who fights for that? Who fights for the unpredictable?
Enter “The Jewel of Medina”, a novel that has been generally categorized as historical-fiction, which depicts the life of Ai’isha’ (ra) rather exotically, with the Prophet (pbuh) not faring to well either. In an interesting New York Times book review, Lorraine Adams says of the author Sherry Jones:
…An inexperienced, untalented author has naÃ¯vely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammadâ€™s marriage to Aâ€™isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader.
Adams goes on to quote the author of “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aâ€™isha Bint Abi Bakr”, Denise Spellberg, as saying of “The Jewel of Medina”:
“I donâ€™t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You canâ€™t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”
In a Wall Street Journal review, Spellberg is quoted as calling the book a “very ugly, stupid piece of work,” and more explosive than Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” or the Danish Cartoons.
Which begs the question of what compels someone in this day and age to produce such a work with the full knowledge that it is deemed offensive? The motives are questionable. Is such a work designed to inspire controversy (thus sales)? Or is it merely done to achieve the goal of irking the Muslim world? Or is their a pure and honest attempt at making something…innocent?
Attempting to dissect an author’s intentions is folly, so I’ll avoid doing so. Suffice to say, while I, as a Muslim, completely reject the decision to create something like this and the subject matter itself, I would not necessarily deny its right to be published. Emphasis on the world “necessarily” as this is, after all, a struggle with something philosophical in essence. Reading blogs and various publications, there are plenty of people who I not only disagree with, but whose opinions offend me and my beliefs on a personal level, as they do, deliberately, to many others. However, given the power, I would never look to shut them down. Some how, that decision becomes more debatable at the prospect of a book, intended to be read by millions in a western hemisphere that is already confused and generally ignorant about Islamic history and beliefs. The audience, changes everything. As do the intentions. As does the context.
However, my intention here is to grapple with the element of free speech itself in this specific context. Not in an American context or an Islamic context, but in a universally-declared human right context. Americans have struggled with the concept since independence and have managed to survive its various conundrums, while the Islamic world, depraved of the right to speak, is still learning to deal with the onslaught of work deemed religiously and culturally offensive that flows from the west in this post-911 world. The latter is a starved and tortured lion stuck in a circus cage. Constantly poked by his adversaries he lashes out between the bars while the crowd declares “look at the mad man”.
In that same review, Adams ponders:
Should free-speech advocates champion â€œThe Jewel of Medinaâ€? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers donâ€™t generally applaud them. If Jonesâ€™s work doesnâ€™t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art.
I am cautious of writing posts like these, preferring a mode of self-censorship in order to avoid the inevitable annoyance of cliche writings from commentators. The potential scenarios. Someone will ignore the heart of this entire matter and mention Ai’isha’s (ra) age, inciting someone else to retort. Eventually this will evolve in to some obscene clash-of-civilizations-type exchange of heated propositions. In the midst, the red lines get pushed further and further.
But this is the interesting part of free speech; what makes it such an exciting element -that volatile nature. The unpredictable (and sometimes predictable) nature of where and how a discussion will evolve. What will become of it. Based on my own observations, the results are sometimes positive and sometimes not. How this particular discussion may evolve (or if it does at all) will force me to sit and watch and wonder where to arbitrarily draw a line; where to declare “stop” and call a compromise. I’ll continue to wonder what free speech means in the philosophical context and in my own context; in my-side-of-the-world context.
I’ll continue to wonder if free speech is really just a series of compromises that are followed by a series of regrets.
“As human beings, our lives are lived based on a series of compromises we choose to make on a daily basis. Again, even this compromise has an arbitrary nature to it, but nevertheless, we draw lines in order to compromise; in order to find an unwritten, unspoken middle ground where most parties are satisfied with the end result.”
Ma3lish,allow me to disagree with you on what you wrote: Nasseem, a great writer , journalist , thinker, author , philosopher and teacher could not ( and I like to emphasizes enough) that compromising their ideas ,it’s just impossible , unless if you will, you want them to self sensor themselves and without their love and compassion for free speech ,they would never be able to produce uncompromising intellectual narratives
In My opinion, Free speech must be worshiped by you and I because without it, we will never be able to write with honesty our narratives in this compromising world .
Let us take our selves for example, Can you as a blogger write an idea that can resonate and have an impact on your readers without telling them the intellectual documented truth, even if you offend the Sultan ? the answer to my question ,we will never be able to write or blog an idea ,an essay ,a book or story with giving in to compromising in the name of respecting the “authority”.
urduni: fair point, but what i’m trying to highlight here is that every one that is part of this human enclave does engage in self-censorship (if we want to call it that) as a way of compromise. even in a free society, people are mentally cautious of how much they should say before reaching that breaking point. there is that social contract that exists between us all. now the pertinent question becomes, where is that red line drawn? at what point do we stop at the blinking mental compromise sign? in s freer society it is much more flexible, where as in our societies…
also, the compromise of free speech is not necessarily the compromise of an idea. an idea can remain, a struggle can persist, but in various forms that are fitting to an environment. this is relevant to political struggles for example.
I am familiar with the scholar quoted in your post and teach/have taught uni courses on Islam and Mid East history. I kind of wish that the debate had never been brought up, because from the excerpts in the media, it sounds like it’s terribly written and not very interesting, and likely would have fallen off the best seller lists before it even made it to them! As a teacher and a Muslim I’m also conflicted as to how I should approach the subject matter. Do I read the book in order to explain to students who have undoubtedly heard about the book about how inaccurate and offensive it is? In doing so, even to attack the book, I will have paid money for the book, thus making money for the company and author that put the book out there. And I don’t want to do that, either. At the same time, I also feel the best way to attack the book is to have read it and to demonstrate line by line where and why the book went wrong.
Ultimately, I will probably try to pick up a used or free copy, borrow it from the library, etc. The opportunity to use these kinds of bad writings as a learning experience is valuable. Perhaps the best thing to come out of such poor decision-making is to demonstrate to the world how these are inaccurate and offensive. A question to pose in answer to these kinds of debates is: How would Christians react to similar kinds of historical fiction about Jesus? We know people have taken great offense to the historical implications that Jesus had inappropriate relations with Mary Magdalen.
SO well done, Nas. In light of the UN debate concerning laws against defaming religions, this particular book, and those who delight to harass that caged lion, it is an extremely important topic to discuss in just the manner you have presented it.
Judaism dealt with soft-porn-ization of one of their prophets in “The Red Tent”. Christianity with “The Last Temptation of Christ” and later with Dan Brown’s historical deconstruction of our faith in “The Da Vinci Code”. I felt like a free, but toothless lion, roaring while others just walked by not seeing/caring what a what a horrible blasphemy they had committed. Not because my faith ‘needed’ defending, but for their sake. Sometimes being free means learning not to bite.
For most in the secular world, the thought of killing for and dying for the honor of religion is a terrifying concept: it makes us people of faith a very scary and unpredictable group that needs to be legislated into ‘peaceful’ behavior. For them, freedom of speech is a higher value than faith.
This is a huge cross-roads for Muslims. The more the secular world sees violent responses, the more the will either fight back to control such responses, or in fear decide freedom of speech isn’t worth dying over. I’m hoping responses like the commentor above will be louder and clearer than the stereotypical Angry Bearded Muslim.
C. Wright Mills once said “Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them — and then, the opportunity to choose”.
I agree with Urduni that freedom of speech should be worshipped but to an extent where we don’t use it as a tool to self destruct, there have to be some boundaries to where you don’t offend others, claiming its your right to say what ever you want when ever you want.
freedom of speech is a right, you are born with it, however in some countries its taking away from you and we should die fighting for it, however that should not give us the right to offend nor insult others using that right, flag burning is a form of a speech but i see it as an insult, some don’t, cretisizing the SULTAN is a form of a speech but in most retarded countries its against the law, and between critisicim and offensive acts there is a gray line that should be watched.
This is a fabulously written post, Nas. How many times and in how many different ways have each of us been faced with learning/reading/regurgitating improperly written history? As a Muslim and an armchair historian, I think I would read this book, if nothing more than just to reiterate what it is I already know about Aisha, (ra). When so much of the Muslim world does not know its own history, how is it that a book like this should cause a take-it-to-the-streets outcry? It would be wasted breath. It seems this author has already been discredited to the point of no one taking it seriously, it’s poorly written, etc.
” Iâ€™ll continue to wonder if free speech is really just a series of compromises that are followed by a series of regrets”
I agree, but I don’t think all compromises regarding free speech are followed by regrets, unless of course these regrets are the ones on the side of the one having to “give in.”
I don’t know Nas, I don’t think that freedom of speech should be compromised here. In the contrary, I think that people should stop being offended when someone say something that contradict with their believes no matter how much lies and fabrication that person put in it.
Lies and fabrications may upset and anger me if I am so sure of what I believe in and would like to the world to see the truth I see, but I have my own channels to promote and speak out for myself.
For ages, religious people have had the upper hand in dictating what to reach the masses. It is time to let people speak up, all from his place, and let the masses decide their own belief.
Nas, as always a challenging topic well considered and well written. Like Kinzi, this reminds me of the “tempest in a tea pot” that was the Last Temptations of Christ. I saw it in the theaters in my hometown. It was boring, poorly directed, poorly acted. In fact, no one would have seen the movie if not for the protests. From that experience, I have learned that it is often better to allow such rubbish to quietly fade away rather than call attention by protests.
I am, of course, very American in my thoughts on the freedom of speech. In the US, the right to say anything, no matter how offensive, is fiercely protected. People offend Christians all the time, in many ways. As they offend blacks, Jews, women, etc. And, our American understanding of this concept is that I must be willing to fight to the death to protect your ability to say that which I find most harmful and distasteful. Under W, this right has been eroded greatly and I mourn the loss.
Having said that, like many American concepts (democracy comes to mind), I reconize that the application of freedom of speech should not be undertaken in the same manner in every society. As each society is different, so must its conversation and understanding of concepts like freedom of speech develop differently. I just hope there will be an open and honest conversation about it, one in which ALL voices are heard.
Nas, I am very curious to know if you would purchase and read this book, or if you would choose to avoid it. Thoughts?
Thoughts exist in an unrestricted realm, and only foreign elements place restriction on thoughts. speech is a manner we express our thoughts in, placing any sort of restriction on our speech will in turn restrict our thoughts, and hence the result would be to kill off some of our creativity. The fact that you suggest things as compromises, middle grounds and rules suggests that you don’t appreciate the liberation of the term “freedom of speech”. unless you are screaming in the soundless forest then it is guaranteed that you will offend someone with your speech knowing, to allow the ones that are offended to wield the power on what you are allowed to say or to compromise on your right to say, is to silence an opinion or a thought that will add something to the conversation and its a loss of an option. You only need to look so far to understand the price of censorship and to understand the dirge of creativity that for instance writing in the Arab world is experiencing.So if the alternative to this is to offend some pigeon holes and having to hold my nose at some of the crap that is produced then i’ll order a supersized combo of that every day.
The problem with this book, and similar ones at that, is that it seems everyone here is trying to treat a historical fiction as a historical non-fiction. yes a lot of what its going to have is crap and has no bases in reality (oh wait …. i should stop arguing that point since i treat both as the same thing , but oh well) hence the name “fiction”. So if you are worried that someone might get the wrong impression from reading this and consider to be historical fact, then i would be hard pressed to argue that such a person who can’t recognize the difference between fiction and non-fiction wouldn’t have much of a chance to think his own thoughts and will have to rely on the mainstream to put thoughts in his head. given that argument, you can conclude that he is already a lost cause and the restriction will only cause extra losses and no gains.
Thankfully this will have little uproar compared to the other things that made Muslims see red and do you know the sad reason for that ? who the hell reads !
either way i lie way left field, but usually my reaction to something that offends me is to either document it and discuss it rationally, if i have the energy, or to just brush it off.
I thought this was a fantastic post, very considered but also very original — I love the idea that what is exciting about “free speech” is what happens at its edges, in test cases. Its volatility makes it very human, brings it back — as you say — to compromise and community. One of the difficulties with The Jewel of Medina is that (I suspect) most of the people who criticise it won’t read it on principle (religious or aesthetic), so it’s hard to have an informed debate. That’s why I was excited to see the NYT review, which seemed detailed and thoughtful. I’ve linked to your post:
najib mahfouz once said that thought can only be corrected by counterthought, and although that is not a definition of free speech, i think it very accurately describes the possibilities of free speech. If the ayotallah hadnt issued the now infamous fatwa against rushdie, and instead read the book and responded to it with arguments that are insightful and illuminating, the end result would have probably been very diffirent.
There should be no red lines with regards to free speech at all. No book should ever go unpublished regardless of how bad or inaccurate it is. rather, books such as the jewel of medina should inspire others to respond, even more creatively, and more profoundly. This is how civilization fosters – in thought and counterthought.
interesting thoughts thus far, and the flow of the discussion has so far proved my predictions wrong. thanks for all the comments. just to pick on a few things that caught my attention…
UmmFarouq: i agree, not all compromises (in my own context of that word) are necessarily followed by regrets. i should rephrase it to say that it seems the biggest compromises we make tend to be followed by bigger regrets.
observer: “I donâ€™t know Nas, I donâ€™t think that freedom of speech should be compromised here.” i think you may have misunderstood what i was trying to say here fadi. it is not that the idea of freedom of speech should be compromised. what i’m saying is that free speech is ALL about compromises. think about your average day as an average human being. assume you have the legal right to say whatever you want to say (within the boundries of flexible laws). even with such a right, you are constantly making mental compromises. you don’t tell that co-worker that they are being utterly annoying. you compromise in a social setting because the underlying counter-weight of free speech is the idea that we have to maintain a status where everyone gets along with one another. hence, bluntness and honesty is often avoided.
think about the movies you’ve watched or books you’ve read or music you’ve listened to. whenever a character says something in the most honest and unfiltered manner, in the purest form of free speech there is, we, as an audience, are taken aback. we are sometimes captivated. because it’s a rare moment.
these compromises i speak of happen constantly and the degree to which we compromise is directly proportional to the degree of free speech available.
Hal: this is a tricky question actually. islam is often entwined with being arab. as a muslim and an arab it is often difficult to separate the two. both in our culture and our religion, historical-fiction of what we deem to be historical fact is an unacquired (if not banned) artform. we are not accustomed to it and the act of picking up such a book would feel incredibly unnatural on a physical and mental level. it was with incredible difficulty that i ever opened the satanic verses.
on the other hand, it is easy for me to pick up the Da Vinci Code and even dare to enjoy it. and it’s not because it’s about christianity, as some of what was written about jesus is something a muslim would find offensive as well – but rather because it was written about a religion that has become somewhat accustomed to such criticism. not completely. but still.
as for this particular novel. i’m not sure. i may find a way to read it eventually. if nothing more than out of curiosity.
first, i disagree that a restriction on free speech is necessarily a restriction on our thoughts. there are many things that we don’t say but think all the time. there are many things we believe but do not express all the time. and those things are not always out of the fear of being legally persecuted due to an atmosphere of little or no free speech. again, in reading my response to “the observer”, i reiterate that my point about compromises is something that comes very natural and something we all engage in despite the free speech context we are in: be it north korea or hyde park.
i would argue that there is a significant portion of the world population, or at least (in this context) the western population that would fit in to this category, and that is what would worry me. this, by the way, is the exact same argument that came from christian opponents of the da vinci code: that there is a significant amount of people who have the inability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. ironically, many of those people also believe everything they see on fox news.
i agree with that, which is one of the reasons i wanted to have a discussion about free speech that used the book only as a prop and not a centerpiece. thanks for the link.
Deena: while i completely agree with you and others on that very valid point, it remains somewhat of an idealistic one. we hope that people respond to things rationally, but human beings are not the most rational creatures. yes, we have the ability to rationalize and that is where the sane of us come to invest a great deal of hope that we will utilize such an ability. however, rationalization requires emotions to be put aside and that can only happen in a perfect world. as human beings, we are driven by primitive emotions and instincts that dominate us and make it difficult to focus and rationalize (if you’re a trekkie, this would be the difference between captain kirk and spock). it is this that makes us such reactionaries.
when it comes to such a piece of work, our immediate reaction is emotional because it is a work that is perceived to attack our core beliefs. and so, our immediate reaction is derived from emotions rather than rationalizations.
so while i agree with your sense of idealism, i can’t help but acknowledge the realities that govern us.
You are right, most of us do daily compromises in order to maintain peace of mind and avoid conflicts, but while this is something that we expect from others to follow, it isn’t something that we can ask for. I mean, if I choose to compromise for my own social status/relationship, then it is my choice, if another person decided not to and say bluntly what he has in mind, then it is his right to do it. I have the right to reply.
“i would argue that there is a significant portion of the world population, or at least (in this context) the western population that would fit in to this category, and that is what would worry me. this, by the way, is the exact same argument that came from christian opponents of the da vinci code: that there is a significant amount of people who have the inability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. ironically, many of those people also believe everything they see on fox news.”
An important point, there are some ‘non-thinkers’ who aren’t able to distinguish, although I think most people choose to believe fiction when it suits them. I would add, that just as many ‘thinking’ people believe everything they see on SNL and late night comedy as well, no matter how many rational arguments are put forth to the contrary. Still, I think rational engagement of facts is the best defense to all of them.
“Iâ€™ll continue to wonder if free speech is really just a series of compromises that are followed by a series of regrets.”
Naseem speaking? Free speech as a compromise? Who is compromising? Compromising what? Some lines that are man-made?
Freedom is a bundle, once you negotiate any parts then the whole meaning is lost.
This is turning into quite a discussion! 🙂 â€¦just a clarification: by counter-argument I did not necessarily mean rational argument, in fact, I would argue that pure rationality can not exist, and that is a good thing. emotions are a very important part of expression, and they can foster understanding and acceptance in a way that rationality does not. I would therefore encourage emotional counter-narratives, those that seek to explain our position, our values, our uniqueness. but compromising freedom of speech (by preventing the book from being published for example) is NOT an emotional appeal, rather, it is an eruption of subhuman instincts.
idealism is a search for enlightenment, and an exploration of our possibilities and utmost capacities as human beings. realism, in appropriate doses, is what guides us to rise to those possibilities. emotion, expression and passion are what make it all worthwhile. The three are required in unison for growth.
If I am idealistic because I explore what â€˜we CAN becomeâ€™ rather than submitting to â€˜what we areâ€™ then I carry my fault with pride. but, according to this definition, wouldnâ€™t you be considered an idealist too? 😛
I’ve heard more than just Americans say this, and I don’t think anyone really means it. Because what’s the rational benefit behind killing yourself in defense of something that you admit you find is most harmful (ie. not beneficial) and distasteful?
Great blog and discussion. I (as a western European) have had fairly heated arguments especially with Americans about freedom of speech, my position being that in every single country, including the US, there is a discrepancy between the pure principle and actual practice. There are laws against slander and inciting racial hatred, for instance, and for good reasons. There are things that, if you said or showed them on day-time TV, would get you into hot water. I’d go even further – I have no problem whatsoever in taking gaybashing fanatics, for instance, picketing the funeral of a homosexual beaten to death and chanting that all fags will burn in hell, and throwing the lawbook at those fanatics.
I find it difficult to discuss the issue with people who mainly seem to see the black-and-white principle yet do not fully acknowledge that in practice no society has ever had fully free speech and that there may be valid reasons why that is the case.
My own position in the matter is that I believe speech should be as free as possible, but that it is more worthwhile to discuss whether certain things should have been said and consider the implications of saying them, in other words to be aware of the effect of certain kinds of speech, than to reduce everything to “Rah rah, free speech, anything else is fascism/communism/un-American etc.” and ignoring that no human issue is black and white.
(Oh, and in defense of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ: I’d consider it a deeply flawed by compelling, intelligent film.)
No limitations shall restrict free speech, no matter how offensive that freedom may be. In assuming free speech as the highest value, self censorship is caused by counter thought.
Eventually, people would pay extra attention to their actions or words as others may strip their thoughts off with their counter thought.
Forced compromise, or arbitrary compromise extends the grey area. Self Compromise is a free speech act.
absolutely. i’m just saying that 98% of us do practice that sense of compromise and usually it comes subconsciously. it’s not an absolute trait, but it is a prevailing human characteristics nonetheless.
I think there is a difference between believing what we see on the news and believing what we see on a comedy show. Yes, some people do believe the latter to be factual, but the former holds a much tighter grip on “truth”, or at least the perception of it. And yes, I agree with your concluding statement wholeheartedly.
I would thus argue that there is no such thing as absolute free speech as you would suggest it here. Please (re)read what I wrote to observer in my first response, detailing what i mean by the word “compromise” in this context.
touche madam…..touche indeed 😀
well put. my point exactly.
Ahmad: self-compromise is what i’m looking at here, but your point is valid.
Is she as good as Dan Brown? Obviously not, so let’s not call ignoring it/her a compromise! The best thing you can do is to advocate true and actual events of the Sunna! The prophet (PBUH) faced way worse than a bunch of artists – wanna – bes! I appreciate you bringing this up though!
Marwan: thanks for the comment. i am definitely not suggesting that the compromise here be ignoring it. it is simply looking at compromises as our own, natural creation of red lines; socially-constructed red lines. and if, when we are willing cross them, it means we are no longer willing to compromise. we begin to be less politically correct, less caring about the people we are going to offend, etc.