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There is nothing sacred about history......

Most people, book lovers aside, can't fail to have missed news of the forthcoming UK publication of Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, which imagines the story of Aisha, the younger wife of the prophet Mohammed, due to be published by Gibson Square at the end of October. However, those who are so scared at having any sort of story related to Mohammed out there have set fire to Gibson Square's Islington offices over the weekend, sending publisher Martin Rynja into police protection, echoing the very long and tedious Salman Rushdie episode - which made him far more famous and successful than he would have been otherwise. It would be a lazy response for me to simply say that these arsonists are nothing but criminals - terrorists - enemies of free speech, even though that is what they have made themselves by not engaging in a non-violent debate. But what I find interesting is the state of mind behind such heated, irrational actions. We all of us, believers, atheists or agnostics, get heated, and irrational from time to time, but to carry out such an attack takes calm planning and preparation, does it not? But it is clear that even those who like to think of themselves as being both Western and educated - and therefore 'sensible', 'clear thinking' and free of fundamentalist thinking should think again. What seems to have ignited this attack are the remarks of Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and an expert on the life of Aisha. She had been approached by the original publishers of the book, Random House, who later dropped it when it was clear the controversy was serious, to provide an encomium for the cover of the book. Instead she said that it took 'sacred history' and turned it into 'softcore pornography' and that the novel constituted a "declaration of war" and "a national security issue". One can't help but feel that Spellberg is the real fanatic here especially when one takes her Professorship into consideration: it is clear she does not know what the term 'novel' means; she has separated so-called historical events as 'sacred'; and has waved a red rag by claiming that the novel constitutes a declaration of war and in so doing has attempted to create a bigger name for herself than that of Jones or indeed, Aisha herself. Furthermore, Jones claims that there is not even one sex scene in the novel. How, then, can it possibly be called 'pornographic'? The furore comes as news emerged that Philip Pullman's children's novel Northern Lights, otherwise known as The Golden Compass, was the fourth most challenged book in 2007, according to the American Library Association, which received 420 complaints to libraries or schools over 'inappropriate content and subject matter' based on its religious viewpoint' last year. Pullman responded to the news with 'glee' which is heartening. Is it just me or does it increasingly feel as though we have regressed to the middle ages? And there's certainly nothing 'sacred' about that. Groan...

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