September 13, 2008

Set for publication next month, “The Jewel of Medina” may enrage conservatives and liberals alike


A new novel may enrage conservatives and liberals alike.

Random House's cancellation of “The Jewel of Medina” ignited a furor last month – all when a Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal revealed why the historical novel was pulled by cowed publishing executives. They feared it might push Muslim fanatics into a murderous frenzy, similar to what occurred during Europe's infamous “Cartoon Riots,” and after publication ten years ago of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." The episode provided a “window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world,” Asra Q. Nomani, a college journalism professor and Muslim, wrote in her tell-all WSJ Op-Ed.

What was author Sherry Jones' novel all about?

Amid the right-to-publish scandal ignited by Random House's decision, nobody knew much about “The Jewel of Medina.” Only that it was, as Jones put it, a meticulously researched “love story” about the Prophet Muhammad and his favorite wife, the child-bride A'shia.

Earlier this month, publishers in the U.S. and Britain announced that they'll release the 46-year-old journalist's debut novel next month. Random House aside, Western publishers ultimately stood up to potential Muslim bullying. So Jones career as a novelist is back on track, and bedrock Western values ultimately prevailed, more or less.

Now, however, a new controversy is likely to emerge -- at least if comments that Jones made to this author during an e-mail interview are anything to go by. They concern her views on Islam, religion, and even the Bush administration. Interestingly, political conservatives and oddball liberals alike may cringe over “The Jewel of Medina,” though for totally different reasons. Jones, for her part, said she hopes the novel and it sequel well set about “building bridges” between the West and Islam, with what she called “this other, demonized culture.” (Excerpts of the Q&A interview with Jones are provided below.)

Publishing executives on both sides of the Atlantic are upbeat about the book that Random House thought was too hot to handle. In America, “The Jewel of Medina” is being brought out by Beaufort Books of New York, an independent publishing house (the one handling O.J. Simpson's demented “If I did it”).

And in Britain, the novel will be published by prestigious publishing house Gibson Square. Publishing director Martin Rynja said he was “completely bowled over by the novel and the moving love story it portrays. I immediately felt that it was imperative to publish it. In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear.”

Gibson plans to bring out the sequel next year. The publisher has a formidable list of authors and titles, many appealing to conservatives, including presidential candidate John McCain's book “Faith of My Fathers.”

The publishing deals, of course, were terrific news for Jones after her disappointment over Random House's cancellation. The publisher had paid her a $100,000 advance, money she got to keep. But considering her six years of hard work, it was not a lot: She'd anticipated handsome royalties, she said. Jones had expected as well to have embarked last month on a national tour of her novel, a pick of Book of the Month Club. It was supposed to have coincided with “The Jewel of Medina's” publication.

None of this ever happened, of course.

Random House executives, egged on by a politically correct University of Texas professor of Middle Eastern studies in Austin, decided “The Jewel of Medina” was too risky to publish. And after the WSJ's attention-getting Op-Ed, Jones quickly found herself in the center of a controversy over a book that, much to her irritation, nobody had even read! Suddenly, her career as a novelist seemed to be in a giant stall. A veteran journalist, she'd been reporting from Spokane, Washington, for the Bureau of National Affairs, a news agency.

Gibson Square's announcement came a few weeks after a Serbian publisher pulled 1,000 Serbian-language editions of “The Jewel of Medina,” and apologized for releasing it, after a Muslim group expressed anger over the novel. In Spain, Italy and Hungary, publishing rights have been lined up, too, Jones said.

A new controversy?

Jones and her novel may be reviled by two of the most antagonistic groups imaginable: political conservatives on the right, and their strangest counterparts on the left – all those oddball post-modern liberals. They're the ones, of course, who loath America and even Western Civilization itself -- and yet they positively adore non-Western cultures; and the more brutish those cultures, then so much the better!

Last month, one of these post-modern liberals, Denise Spellberg (the politically correct professor of Middle Eastern studies), was widely cast as one of the villains in the “right-to-publish” scandal. All after nervous Random House executives got Spellberg's edict about “The Jewel of Medina,” which the professor was asked to review. The novel, Spellberg declared, was inflammatory, unfair to Islam, and unfit to publish! Apparently, Random House's “security experts” also agreed with Spellberg's assessment that the novel could spark violence, even become a “national security” issue.

What promoted Jones to write “The Jewel of Medina” and a sequel? Her inspiration, she explained, came from the 9/11 attacks, which prompted her to delve more deeply into Islam.

It was an understandable reaction, of course. After 9/11, many Americans wanted to know more about Islam. And many pondered the dark side of political Islam (“Islamofacism” as some call it) not to mention backwardness of the Middle East. Jones -- a self-described feminist brought up as a Baptist – related that Islam's oppression of women particularly fascinated her, prompting her to take a scholarly journey into the religion's earliest period.

And to her surprise, she liked what she saw!

Jones found an Islam she could relate to, an Islam she could understand. In its beginnings, Islam did not oppress woman, she concluded. Women were liberated! Early Islam's women, she explained, prayed side-by-side their men; fought with them in battle; and even advised them on important issues.

And the most remarkable women of all was A'isha. Jones said she was “particularly captivated with A'sha's wit, intelligence, generosity, courage, and leadership.”

A'isha, the Prophet Muhammad's favourite and youngest wife, elicits much controversy today, most of it revolving around her precise age when she married Muhammad; not to mention her age when their marriage was consummated. Some apologists for men who enjoy sex with pubescent girls say A'isha's age is irrelevant. Muhammad could not possibly have been a paedophile: He was merely following God's command.

Jones, for her part, praises A'isha as a brave warrior, scholar, and a valued adviser to Muhammad. She even finds A'isha inspiring, considers her a kindred soul-mate. Accordingly, she related, “I felt driven to tell (A'isha's) story because it empowered me, and I hoped -- and still hope -- it will have the same effect on others, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim.”

Of course, some Muslims and oddball liberals – some taking their cue from Columbia University's late Edward Said and his self-pitying book “Orientialism” -- will complain that no white Western woman like Jones has any business writing about about Islam and A'isha. People like her, after all, could never be objective: By nature, they're racist and presumptuous, brimming with cultural superiority and imperialism!

To make such claims against Jones, however, could be problematic; for despite her Baptist upbringing, she no longer embrace any particular religious viewpoint, she says. And there can be little doubt about that: She demonstrates none of the self-confidence that many, if not most, Muslims express about their religion and culture.

She explains: “I embrace all religions now as containing Truth. I believe God is Love. My years as a devout Christian helped me in the writing of my books because I still remember what it is to pray constantly and ask myself what God would want of me in any particular situation. I still rely on my spiritual self -- my inner A'isha -- for comfort, wisdom, and moral guidance.”

A'isha, interestingly, also is an endearing figure to Spellberg, the university professor of Middle Eastern studies, who has devoted much scholarship her. A'isha does, indeed, appear to have been remarkable woman for her time, even if she was on the wrong side of history, based on what the Muslim world looks like today.

That said, something seems rather odd about A'isha's groupies in the West, people like Jones and Spellberg. Specifically, it's their enthusiastic embrace and identification with strange foreign cultures and dead civilizations, and the most illustrious figures inhabiting them.

Certainly, it's not as if there are a dearth of admirable figures (potential soul-mates for today's feminists) in Western Culture and its earliest beginnings. The Bible, after all, is full of strong, remarkable, and intriguing women who played major roles in shaping Christianity and Western culture. And if it's female military leaders Jones fancies, then what about the Old Testament's Deborah? Commanding an Army of 10,000 Israelites, she faced “900 chariots of Iron” when defeating the Canaanite general Sisera.

Well, maybe Jones was home sick when that story was taught in Sunday School. For her, it seems, there's only A'isha, her kindred soul-mate. Then again, perhaps Jones does not say such things because she deeply believes them -- but because it's what she believes will sell. Make what you will of this muddle; of what might be called part of the cultural and spiritual malaise afflicting so many self-doubting Westerners, especially in Europe. There, low birth rates represent a kind of cultural suicide, the subject of Mark Steyn's depressing bestseller, “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know it.”

Bush Derangement Syndrome

The story of Jones and her novel gets stranger, though. Yes, it gets downright weird!

Understandably, Jones was upset over Random House's self-censorship. But whom did she blame for her bad luck, for Random House's cowedly cancellation? Incredibly, it was not Random House -- first and foremost. No, Jones blamed a far more sinister force...the Bush administration!

As Jones explained:

We in the U.S., particularly in New York where the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack occurred, are living in a culture of fear brought on by the World Trade Center attack and fear mongering from the U.S. government. Other countries are more accustomed, I think, to strife and war, since they are not geographically isolated as we are.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive. I know there are violent factions within the Muslim community. However, if I let fear stop me from speaking and writing and trying to make a difference in the world, what kind of life would I be living? There are things worse than death. And I have never believed my books -- written with respect and regard for Islam and its Prophet -- would incite violence.

Jones right-to-publish rallying cry is, of course, what you'd expect from any responsible writer. But it's obviously wacky beyond belief to blame the Bush administration for Random House's self-censorship. Responding to her display of Bush Derangement Syndrome, I dashed off an e-mail to her in a pique: “It's interesting that you blame the Bush administration's "fear mongering" for Random House's decision. I'm surprised this angle did not come out in the long WSJ piece, which had set the tone for this whole controversy.”

Jones replied:

No, I blame the culture of fear we live in, which is due in part to the Bush administration's "fear mongering." Please don't confuse the two, and I'm sorry if I was unclear in that regard. Random House made its decision because of very real fear inspired by the 9/11 attacks (they do, after all, live in New York); I'm just saying that our entire culture now walks in fear that's fueled in part by "orange alerts," loss of privacy, rhetoric about an "axis of evil," etc. that we have dealt with since that horrible day. Random House's decision is the latest in a series of decisions made out of fear of offending Muslims (such as the Dunkin' Donuts/Rachael Ray fiasco) which, if I were a Muslim, I would find offensive in itself.

Jones' reference to Rachael Ray concerned the controversy touched off by the television personality when she adorned herself with an Arab headscarf (like the one favoured by the late and wily Palestinian strongman and terrorist Yasser Arafat) in her Dunkin' Donuts television commercial.

And what about charges that the “Jewel of Medina's” love scenes are trashy? Jones' 14-year daughter Maria resolutely defended her mom's novel. Writing to a blogger who had some issues with it, she declared: “My mother's book (which I have actually read), is anything but 'Trashy'. How could anyone, who has not had the opportunity to read this book, judge it without concern. Denise Spellberg ruined my mother's dreams and hard work. She may not have realized to consequences of doing so, but being a member of the Jones family, I do.”

She added: “My mother is a respectable person.”

How might yet another controversy affect sales of “The Jewel of Medina”? Call me a cynic, but I'm betting all those liberals who share Jones' worldview will make “The Jewel of Medina” a best seller.

Excerpts from a Q&A interview in mid-August with Sherry Jones:

DP: “I don't believe I've ever seen a comment from you as to what inspired you to write the novel? Would you elaborate a little on that?

SJ: “I was inspired by post-9/11 news accounts of women's oppression in the Middle East. A feminist, I began reading for more information and discovered that women's roles and situations in Islam's early years, under Muhammad, were much different. Women fought alongside men in battles, prayed with the men in mosques, and advised Muhammad as part of his inner circle of Companions. A'isha, his youngest wife, particularly captivated me with her wit, intelligence, generosity, courage, and leadership.

“She was the first female Islamic scholar, with an extensive knowledge of the Qur'an; she could recite from memory more than 1,000 poems; she advised Muhammad and his successors; and she led troops into battle in the first Islamic civil war, which began the Sunni-Shi'ite rift. I felt driven to tell her story because it empowered me, and I hoped -- and still hope -- it will have the same effect on others, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim.”

DP: “Were you raised in any particular religion? Would you comment on that?”

SJ: “Yes, I was raised a Baptist. I embrace all religions now as containing Truth; I believe God is Love. My years as a devout Christian helped me in the writing of my books because I still remember what it is to pray constantly and ask myself what God would want of me in any particular situation. I still rely on my spiritual self -- my inner A'isha -- for comfort, wisdom, and moral guidance.”

DP: “As I recall, you got a seizable advance from Random House for the book, $100,000. What happens now? Do you have to return that advance under the contract?”

SJ: “My contract allowed me to keep the advance money I had received and to collect the rest. It may seem seizable until you take into account the fact that I worked six years on both books, and am still working now!”

DP: “Have you gotten what could be described as "hate mail" or any threats? Anything that is of concern to you?

SJ: “I have received some very insulting mail, but not a lot. My only concern is the criticism of me and my books by people who have not yet read them.”

DP: “Presuming you find another publisher for the U.S. market, do you think all the publicity triggered by the cancellation may be a blessing in disguise because of all the free publicity you've gotten?”

SJ: “It will be a blessing if it helps draw attention to my books' messages of women's empowerment and peace, and if it enables my books to reach a wider audience so the work of building bridges with this other, demonized culture can begin. It will not be a blessing if it continues to provoke divisive, hate-filled, racist rhetoric, and if it continues to spread misperceptions about my book.”

DP: “It's interesting that you hit a temporary roadblock in the U.S. -- and yet you've got publication rights in three European countries. How do you explain that?”

SJ: “We in the U.S., particularly in New York where the Sept, 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack occurred, are living in a culture of fear brought on by the World Trade Center attack and fear-mongering from the U.S. government. Other countries are more accustomed, I think, to strife and war, since they are not geographically isolated as we are.

"Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive. I know there are violent factions within the Muslim community. However, if I let fear stop me from speaking and writing and trying to make a difference in the world, what kind of life would I be living? There are things worse than death. And I have never believed my books -- written with respect and regard for Islam and its Prophet -- would incite violence.”

DP: “It seems that your blog is down. Did you take it down or do you have a technical problem? What's going on in respect to your blog?”

SJ: “I took it down because I did not want to offer a forum for discussion of my book by people who have not read it. I realized that it was taking up a lot of my energy and time for a discussion that was not progressing because there is no published book to debate, and I decided that people should use another forum for this discussion. When the book is available to the public to read, I may resume my blog.”

DP: “I was amused to see the response your daughter wrote, and posted on a blogger's site who had criticized your novel. If you don't mind sharing some personal information: Are you married or a single mom? How have your other family members reacted to all of this?”

SJ: “I want to leave my family out of this, please.”

A slightly different version of this article was originally published at The American Thinker. Click here for readers comments on that article.

September 4, 2008

Obama-style program PAYS failing students to get free tutoring!

By David Paulin

In ultra-liberal Austin, Texas, an Obama-style high school program has been unveiled: It pays poorly performing students $6-a-hour to get free after-school tutoring!

Interestingly, Austin's school district already provides free tutoring to under-performing students, thanks to requirements mandated by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law. But sadly, those initiatives have failed to perform as expected. Indeed, the Austin-American Statesman's article had an interesting tidbit about the existing program, one that called up the old saw about leading a horse to water. “Austin pays more than $1,000 per student for the service...(but) few eligible students — less than 2 percent in years past — take advantage of it,” the paper noted.

Now former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, a Democrat, has put forth his pay-you-to-learn program: It will turn underachievers into achievers, unlike the free tutoring program spurred by No Child Left Behind, he contends. His $375,000 initiative -- apparently the first of its kind anywhere -- will be funded by the private sector. That's certainly good news for taxpayers. They'd surely riot if they were hit up for the money, judging by the public's initial and overwhelmingly negative reactions to the initiative.

Todd's program is aimed in particular at a local high school that is notorious for its under-performing students. Among its problems have been high truancy and drop out rates. In one article, the Statesman noted that “more than 600 of (the school's) 760 students had more than 10 unexcused absences in the 2006-07 school year — nearly 80 percent of students missed two weeks of class or more.” Overwhelmingly Hispanic and black, the school was closed last June after failing for five straight years to meet state standards pertaining to maximum allowable dropout rates and testing standards. This month, it was reopened under a new name.

Why are some students failing so badly in politcally liberal Austin despite generous programs such as No Child Left Behind? Todd and other excuse-making liberals blame the problem, in large part, on the fact that many students come from low-income households and, as a consequence, must work part-time jobs to support their families. "These kids,” Todd observed,” sometimes have to make a choice between not eating, not having the things that many of us enjoy, or studying." Yet curiously, neither Todd nor other left-leaning elites offer any hard evidence to support these claims. And not surprisingly, they carefully avoid mentioning a factor that many hard-working and middle-class Austinites see as a significant reason for failing students: It's due to “cultural issues” of various kinds in the liberal “open borders” city.

Consider, for example, the groups of Hispanic students who wait every morning for their school bus, not far from where I live. None of the boys in baggy trousers and loosely fitting T-shirts ever carries school books -- yet more than a few have I-Pods and even cell phones. Usually, it's only girls who carry back packs that, presumably, are stuffed with books. Alternatively, visit a low-income Hispanic neighborhood. In the driveways of apartment complexes, there's no shortage of late-model vehicles, especially brawny pick-ups with fancy hub caps that are popular among illegal Mexican immigrants and their offspring.
Could the owners of any of these pick-ups be the heads of any of the economically disadvantaged families being targeted under the pay-to-study program?

Granted, these observations are hardly scientific. But neither are those being offered by Todd and other liberal educational reformers in Austin. All of them, of course, are part of a long liberal tradition dating to President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs – throwing money at social problems without having much understanding of some of the pathologies contributing to those problems.
In the Statesman's story about the pay-you-to-learn program this week, the readers comment section was filled with disgust and outrage. “Well, it was pretty inevitable, wasn't it?” complained one reader. “We pay farmers not to grow crops, we pay people to have illegitimate babies...” Another declared: “Responsibility starts at home with the parents. Why not pay the parents too? Is this what our educational system has come to? Pay the kids to go to school?”

One thing is certain: Austin represents the future under an Obama presidency.

This was originally published by The American Thinker.