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Rediff.com  » News » US think-tank warns of violence over book on Prophet's wife

US think-tank warns of violence over book on Prophet's wife

October 16, 2008 19:00 IST

The Jewel of Medina, a story of Ayesha, Prophet Mohammed's third wife penned by American author Sherry Jones in the form of historical fiction, has been objected to by some Muslims in the United States. The book was published in America on October 6 but its publication in Britain has been delayed fearing protests.

Muslim groups allege that the book is blasphemous and have branded the author an enemy of Islam. The controversy is getting quite like the Danish cartoon controversy which raised protests from many Islamic countries and India.

According to American think-tank Stratfor, "The tone of the book is not the real issue. To many Muslims, not only is it offensive to ridicule Mohammed but it is forbidden and considered a dire insult to portray the Prophet in any way outside the context of Islamic writings. This insult is magnified when Mohammed is depicted having intimate relations with his wife, a revered figure in Islam who is referred to in many Islamic writings as Um ul Mumineen (Arabic for 'Mother of the Believers'). Because of this, in all probability many Muslims -- not just a few radicals -- will find the book offensive."

Stratfor quotes an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin who said Muslims would find the book very offensive. He has likened it to soft-core pornography.

However, the author and publisher have argued that the book respectfully portrays Prophet Mohammed and his relationship with Ayesha -- in stark contrast to the Danish cartoons that sparked so much protest and violence.

Random House scrapped its plans to publish the book in the US because they thought Muslims could find book's contents offensive. Later, Beaufort Books announced its publication. The book has been published in Serbia where it has drawn criticism. The book was withdrawn from the market in Serbia but, pirated copies are available.

On September 27, according to the Stratfor report, three men were arrested outside the house of British publisher Martin Rynja of Gibson Square. They were reportedly forcing a small incendiary device through the front door mail slot of the home, which also serves as the headquarters for Gibson Square publishers. Three men were arrested shortly after the incident and have been charged in connection with the crime. The suspects reportedly have indicated that the attack was indeed related to the publication of The Jewel of Medina.

In view of the past experience of controversies over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Danish cartoons, Stratfor thinkers Fred Burton and Scott Stewart argue that "The Jewel of Medina has the potential to cause problems for many years. Though this issue might fade quickly from public consciousness in the West, the subject matter of the book has the potential to inflame Muslim activists again in the future."

Stratfor claims that in the case of the Prophet cartoons, Pakistani religious leaders admitted that they intentionally stirred up emotions connected with the publication of the images after the initial furore died down. It is thus quite possible that The Jewel of Medina will be used in the same way, but this timeframe could span decades. In the case of The Satanic Verses, large-scale protests condemning the book and Rushdie occurred as recently as fall 2007, 19 years after the novel's publication."

Stratfor writers claim, "We are not necessarily predicting an immediate open season on Sherry Jones or the publishers of the book, but precautions should obviously be taken to prevent them from becoming the next Theo van Gogh [the Dutch film-maker who was killed for making a controversial film on Islam]. And as the ancillary attacks in the Rushdie case (among others) have shown, other people also can become victims, and violence can be channelled in unexpected ways and appear in unexpected places."

On the wider implication of the book the Stratfor report concludes, "When it comes to perceptions of blasphemy and other affronts that some see as warranting death, fatwas often are carried out with extreme brutality -- and those targeted have not always been directly associated with the initial offence. Considering past examples and the probable emotions The Jewel of Medina will raise in the Islamic world, revenge for offended religious sensibilities might be brutal, and it might be a long time coming."

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi