Issue 108, Winter 2008/2009

In August Random House canceled publication of The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Mohammed’s wife Aisha, after a professor of Islamic studies warned it might be “offensive to some in the Muslim community,” and also “incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.” The professor alerted colleagues about the book; what follows is the response of one of those colleagues, Shahed Amanullah, editor-in-chief of

by Shahed Amanullah

In 1989, when Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses sparked a new phenomenon
of protests by Muslims — particularly in the West — I was a student-body senator at UC Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born. Two bookstores were firebombed — apparently in retaliation for the novel — though no one claimed responsibility. Along with several other Muslim students, I appeared on local television to denounce the bombings and state our belief that while Muslims could  understandably be offended, no one had the right to impose censorship or intimidate others with threats to their safety or property.

That put us in a unique position: targets of abuse by Muslims and non- Muslims alike. The general public painted us as whitewashing a desire to impose our beliefs on others. Fellow Muslims accused us of apologizing for a legitimate Muslim rage, regardless of whether it had crossed the line into violence. This paradox has repeated itself many times in the 20 years since, most recently with the Danish cartoons.

Some of the more abrasive encounters between Muslims and others have centered not on politics or foreign policy, but free expression. Muslims have naturally taken exception to the way some artists, writers, and academics have portrayed their faith. Non-Muslims have criticized some books by Muslims that are offensive, along with the institutions that sell them (as have we, incidentally). People talk at and over each other rather than to each other. Ideas are not exchanged, and the cycle continues unabated.

Muslims have generally felt embattled during the past few decades as their media image becomes increasingly unrepresentative of the average Muslim. They are told that the prerequisite for changing this imagery is for them to meaningfully change the behavior of extremist Muslims, who exist far outside their sphere of influence — often a half a world away.

Muslims in this position feel they have no choice but to push back harder against insulting portrayals or misrepresentations. Some, unfortunately, push too far. But Muslims aren’t alone in overreacting. Voices that seek to marginalize the presence of Muslims in public discourse routinely do the same.

Two recent examples illustrate this: the attempts by New York congressman Peter King and others to ban “Why Islam” ads from NYC subways (based only on the reputation of an external supporter of the ads) and calls to prevent publication of the book The Jewel of Medina. Neither effort has succeeded in dealing effectively with controversy, which will only reappear another day. We’re never going to silence ourselves out of problems.

Time has taught me that the best response to free speech is simply more speech in return. Anyone should have the right to publish whatever they want about Islam or Muslims — even if their views are offensive — without fear of censorship or retribution. Muslims, however, shouldn’t be expected to be passive consumers of these views. Offended Muslims have the right — indeed, the responsibility — to vigorously critique anything written about them or their religion, provided they do not cross the line into intimidation and coercion.

Getting people to follow these guidelines will take a lot of reconditioning. But the
alternative — a hypersensitive Muslim community unable to respond constructively
to external criticism (or internal criticism, for that matter), coupled with a journalistic/
artistic/secular community that feels genuine fear and is prevented from free
expression — cannot be an option. We are witnessing the stagnation and increased
misunderstanding that comes from a stifled discourse.

We all need to develop thicker skins, more open minds, and a common understanding
of the principles of free speech. No one has the absolute right not to be offended, or the right to live without the uncomfortable opinions of others. This is true of flag burning (which should harm nothing other than a piece of cloth) or non-Muslim views of the Prophet Muhammad (which should have no impact on a Muslim’s sincere belief ). Religion and a universal sense of civility both dictate that emotions be kept in check to preserve social order. In such an environment, the freedom to speak openly — and all the benefits that come from it — can flourish.