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 naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad’s marriage to A’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 A’isha Bint Abi Bakr”, Denise Spellberg, as saying of “The Jewel of Medina”:
“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.”
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 “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’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.