In Denmark: Talking about free speech

Every cloud, the saying goes, has a silver lining.

And so it goes with “The Jewel of Medina,” being yanked out of publication by Random House, the world’s largest English-language publisher, just months before it was scheduled to appear on bookshelves in the U.S., then being the subject of threats in Serbia and an attack in the UK.

At the time all this chaos was happening, I felt frightened and depressed — not out of concern for my personal safety, because I haven’t doubted that I am perfectly safe — but out of concern for my books, “The Jewel of Medina” and its forthcoming sequel, “The Sword of Medina.” I wanted them to be read, and read now, while we in the West are still working out our relationship to Islam and Muslim countries.

Those sorrows hung over me like a dark cloud for many weeks. Now, however, the silver lining glimmers more brightly than ever as I travel the world and speak about the topics that matter most to me: Free speech, human rights, women’s equality, religious extremism, peace, and the wrongheadedness of racism.

What people want to hear and discuss differs from country to country, I’ve been surprised to find

In Spain last February I spoke to many reporters, male and female, about women’s equality. In response to their questions, I discussed the egalitarian attitudes of Muhammad toward his wives and toward women in general, and the many rights he gave to women. I said that oppression of women is not Quranic and certainly not Islamic. But I wondered: Why were they so interested in this aspect of the book? A reporter in Barcelona explained this to me near the end of my visit: It’s because, she said, women in Spain only got the right to divorce their husbands in 1982.

The situation is quite different in Denmark, where women have been able to serve as members of Parliament since 1907, according to Yildiz Akdogan, a member of Parliament of Turkish descent and also a feminist. She invited me to lunch there, and showed me around the beautiful building where the laws of Denmark are discussed and enacted. Women are an integral, equal part of the country’s political, professional, and social life, enjoying at least as much equality, and even more so in some cases, than their sisters in the U.S.

In Denmark, the feminist revelations of “The Jewel of Medina” seemed to hold little interest. Instead, issues of censorship and free speech perked up people’s ears. Here, where the threats and riots over 12 cartoons depicting Islam still loom vividly in people’s minds, everyone wanted to know what I think. Did I think the cartoons should have been published? (If the editors wanted to publish them, yes, I said.) What did I think about the controversy they caused? (Sheer politics.)

In the process of discussing the cartoons, I talked a lot about free speech. With a U.N. resolution coming up this spring that would outlaw all criticism of Islam, this topic is very close to my heart right now. I see the freedoms we have long cherished in the West under attack by oppressive governments who do not want to be criticized for their denials of basic human rights such as privacy and free speech and for their imposition of a harsh legal system which seeks to exclude women from public life and allow their cruel mistreatment in private life.

Bjarke Larson, my publisher in Denmark and a truly amazing person
Bjarke Larsen, my publisher in Denmark and a truly amazing person

However, I also admonished the Danes not to judge all Muslims by the actions of a few. I said that most Muslims are loving, kind people who just like the rest of us, worry about their finances and their children and think more about putting the next meal on their table than about bombing or shooting anyone.

In other words, we are all alike. That’s the impression I hope readers take away from “The Jewel of Medina, and it’s a central theme of the sequel, “The Sword of Medina.” In case they don’t, I’m talking as fast as I can, tailoring my comments to my audience, yes, but thinking all the while about my morals, about what I stand for, and about helping to steer the world to a peaceful course one speech, one novel, one word at a time.

The literary festival in Aarhus, Denmark, where I was a featured speaker.
The literary festival in Aarhus, Denmark, where I was a featured speaker.

One creative way to display books at the Vild Med Ord festival.
One creative way to display books at the Vild Med Ord festival.