It’s OK, we’re on the 10th floor

Alom Shaha notices an excess of timidity about discussing Islam.

“We can’t publish this, we’ll get firebombed.” Apparently this was the response from one of the staff at Biteback Publishing, the UK publishers of my book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, when it was first presented to them. Thankfully, Iain Dale, the managing director, laughed at the idea, saying, “it’s OK, we’re on the 10th floor” and went on to publish the book anyway.

It’s not just staff at Biteback who may have been concerned about publishing my book — according to a senior editor at one of the largest international publishers, who claimed to be personally keen to give me a deal, she was unable to convince her colleagues to agree because a “number of people” in the company would be “uncomfortable” about it. She then went on to explain that by “uncomfortable” she really meant “afraid”.

Yes, I’ve been there. Remember that? More than three years ago? The sudden delay in the imminent publication of Does God Hate Women?

About this non-ecumenical book that Jeremy and I wrote, that is due out at the end of this week. Yes, what about it, you’re thinking, all agog. For reasons which I will explain another day, the publisher became nervous about it last Friday. The publisher phoned us on Friday, and talked of changes, or delays, or would we like to drop a chapters. We would not like to drop a chapter, and if we had liked to drop a chapter, the time to discuss that would have been several months ago, not now, a week before the book is supposed to appear. The publisher sent the can-we-drop-it chapter to an ecumenicist to get his opinion.

There was a reason for the publisher’s sudden nervousness.

An academic book about religious attitudes to women is to be published this week despite concerns it could cause a backlash among Muslims because it criticises the prophet Muhammad for taking a nine-year-old girl as his third wife…This weekend, the publisher, Continuum, said it had received “outside opinion” on the book’s cultural and religious content following suggestions that it might cause offence.

Suggestions that came from the reporter who wrote the article reporting the suggestions. Really: that’s what happened.

And there was pretty much no outrage about the book once it was published. There was an irritated little Facebook group for awhile, but that’s it. Alom hasn’t had even that.

I’ve encountered the idea that Muslims will be offended by my book from numerous people — from the publishers who looked at my proposal to the people who have interviewed me since publication and even from some friends. The only people who have not suggested that the book might be offensive to Muslims are Muslims themselves. Not a single Muslim has come forward to say that he or she has been offended by my book. The most strongly worded email I’ve received is one that expressed pity that I had “lost the one truth path” and the hope that “Allah would guide [me] back to it”.

Publishers should ease off on the nerves, it seems to me.


  1. martincohen says

    My take is that some people are afraid to offend people who have shown that they are willing to murder people who offend them.

    Seems at least a little reasonable to me (the people who are afraid, not the people so easily offended).

  2. says

    The Daily Mail isn’t frightened of such people. It uses fear to sell newspapers. (Its hidden mission is to keep middle-England angry and frightened).

    Many (but not all) of cases where “officials” censor things in case Muslims are offended are silly over-reactions. They could often have got it right by picking up the phone. Muslims themselves are often irritated by such actions, because it shows them in a bad light, and helps reinforce attitudes against them.

    There obviously are cases where some Muslims become violent, but even then there can be special circumstances. For example, it is far worse if a Muslim (or ex-Muslim) criticises Islam than if someone else does. And it may need a Muslim with an agenda to stir things up, because the original incident didn’t generate sufficient action from Muslims. (That was the case with the Muhammad cartoons affair).

  3. says

    Alaom Shaha quotes Sherry Jones (author of ‘The Jewel of Medina’) as having said: “…The real problem is not that Muslims are offended but that people think they will be.”

    Perhaps. But following 9/11, Muslim critics of Al-Quaeda were few and far between in the media, and got vanishingly small publicity there. I suppose the relation of Muslims to the organised Islamic fanatics is a bit like that of ordinary Germans to the Nazi Party in the opening phase of WW2 in Europe: they rallied round the swastika, and in large numbers. Only later, when Germany started losing, had they second thoughts.

    It seems that for a Muslim to attack the actions of fellow Muslims, however evil and misguided they might be, is seen as an act of disloyalty to Islam: just as Germans were reluctant to criticise the Nazis, possibly out of fear that this would be seen as unpatriotic, (and certainly that it would be suicidal.)

    Each Muslim is called upon to repeatedly proclaim a belief that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is his Prophet. There is the One True Way, and there are the other, untrue ways.

    As the old IWW song put it so well: which side are you on?

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