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Firebombing Freedom 

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the early hours of September 27, just before 2:30 in the morning, three men allegedly pushed a gasoline bomb through the front door of Martin Rynja's London home, setting off a brief firestorm in the northern borough of Islington. Undercover units of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorist command had been following the men and the fire department quickly put the fire out. Two of the alleged attackers were detained immediately, according to reports. The third was picked up following an armed car stop and taken to jail. Police characterized the attack as terrorist in nature.





Sherry Jones couldn't have known it -- she had dropped her cell phone in the toilet and was unreachable as she moved into a new house in Spokane -- but the latest chapter in her novel's short, tumultuous life had just been written a half-world away.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & ynja's Islington townhouse was also his place of business, the headquarters of the small publishing firm Gibson Square. Nineteen days earlier, Rynja had announced that Gibson had struck a deal with Jones for British rights to her first novel, The Jewel of Medina, and its sequel, which tell the fictionalized story of the Prophet Mohammed and his child-bride A'isha.





Jones characterized the attack on Rynja as a "statement" made by a "small group," and said that her book was meant to unite people, especially Westerners, by exposing them to the life of a strong woman and feminist icon. "I was saddened that a group of Muslims would seek to undo what I'm trying to do," she told The Inlander.





The Jewel of Medina was a strange pickup for Gibson Square. The firm usually specializes in current affairs and general-interest nonfiction (John McCain's Hard Call, for example, and blue-collar oenophile tome The Great Wine Swindle). Jones' book came to the company by convoluted means. Originally slated to be published under Random House's Ballantine brand, the novel was garnering attention and seemed, to more than one person in the publishing industry, bound for bestseller lists.





A routine blurb request to an Islamic scholar at the University of Texas, however, created a different kind of firestorm. Professor Denise Spellberg felt the book was an "ugly" and "stupid" fictionalization of the life of one of Islam's most important women. She called Random House, who is also publishing her book, Thomas Jefferson's Koran, and warned them not to publish. Spellberg went even further, calling the book a "declaration of war."





"You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography," Spellberg told The Wall Street Journal in early August. (She said this, by the way, after noting that she'd paid in the late '80s to see The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' legendary novel, which at one point very definitely turns a sacred history into soft-core pornography.)





When Spellberg ran to Islamic Websites and kicked up a storm, Random House dropped the book. Which got everyone from Stanley Fish to Salman Rushdie arguing over whether the decision constituted censorship by fear. When the dust settled, publishing rights had been given to Rynja and to American publisher Eric Kampmann of Beaufort Books.





Jones was shocked by the controversy, she says, especially given the tone of her book. "It's not a critique of Islam," she says. "It's not negative in any way. It's an epic love story about these two larger-than-life figures from history." She was drawn, she says, by the feminist angle. A'isha, Jones says, was "living in a society that treats women as possessions of men. And despite that she grew into this really powerful, erudite scholar and leader." If anything, Jones figured she'd receive the bulk of criticism from the West. She feared being "chastised as much by non-Muslims for sugar-coating pedophilia." A'isha was 9 when she was wed to Mohammed, and according to Islamic custom at the time, the two probably would have consummated soon after her first menstrual cycle. In an effort to ward off that controversy, Jones wrote a two-page note explaining her thoughts on the politics of child-brides and her belief in the sterling character of the prophet. "He was not a pedophile," she says. "His marriage was a political alliance."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he book was back on track. But then came the bombings. Spellberg declined an Inlander request for further comment, saying that "many people had access to [Jones'] work and judged it accordingly." That's true, though the majority of the book's judges haven't yet been able to read it. Which is why, in light of the bombing at Gibson Square -- which has left Rynja in seclusion and The Jewel of Medina's British publication in deep doubt -- Kampmann decided to move the publication date forward to Oct. 6. Saying that he was attracted to the book by feelings of "injustice," Kampmann categorically denies any hesitation about publishing the book in the aftermath of the London bombing. "I don't worry. I'm not a worrier. I don't spend any time worrying," he says, characterizing his publishing house as having courage where others do not. "Beaufort Books is leading by following," he says.





Now that the book has been published in America, and the questions of whether The Jewel of Medina would offend Muslims or Christians and whether or not that potential for offense is grounds to leave it unpublished have begun to fade, another debate has struck up. Whether the book is any good.





Laurel Maury of the Los Angeles Times, the first critic with a major daily to publish a review of the book, says her biggest problem with The Jewel of Medina is its "large swaths of purple prose." She calls the novel "a second-rate bodice ripper," before noting that it can't really be called a bodice-ripper because there's no real sex. Jones' A'isha is unbelievable as a character, Maury says, a prepubescent with the mind of a great general and the mouth of a bra-burner. She then takes nit-picking issue with calling male genitalia "the scorpion's tail."





Maury seems most offended that the book that caused a bombing doesn't qualify as great literature.





A work needn't be Tropic of Cancer, though, to be vitally important. It can be "Darling Nikki," or Grand Theft Auto. It can be anything that -- artistic merit aside -- causes us to pause and reconsider the rights we've given ourselves as Americans and also the rights we've allowed to slip away: freedom of speech, freedom against slander, freedom of religion.





Regardless of whether The Jewel of Medina is judged, in the long view, to be a great book, it will, by some margin, be an important benchmark for how we as Americans confront our fear of extremism and our need to feel safe in our homes. We've given up a tremendous number of freedoms in the wake of 9/11. How we deal with little controversies like Sherry Jones' book about Mohammed's child bride -- a novel, in Maury's words, in which "Gloria Steinem meets Pippi Longstocking" -- will test whether we're ready to begin taking those freedoms back.





Great literature or not, The Jewel of Medina will force American readers to debate what we've ignored for seven years: To avoid the unpleasantness of inflammatory texts, how far are we willing to go? In order to feel safe from fear, how many personal freedoms will we give up?





Sherry Jones reads from The Jewel of Medina on Friday, Oct. 10, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave. Call 838-0206.

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