A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
Here’s the text of my speech against Islamophobia given at Portland State University Friday, Oct. 29:
As the author of two novels about the Prophet Muhammad and his controversial bride A’isha bint Abi Bakr, I know something about hate. I know something about fear. Some people hate me because they think I’m an Islamophobe. Islamophobes hate me because I’m not. I’ve been called, on the one hand, an “enemy of Islam,” and on the other, an “Islamopanderer.”
I’m neither one. Here’s what I am: a writer who found a story I wanted to tell, that I thought might make a positive difference in the world. And my books have done that. By increasing people’s understanding of Islam and its founders, “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina” have, as one Florida man told me, “put a human face on the Muslim religion.” Yet it’s not enough. There is so much more to do. Islamophobia is on the rise. But you and I have the power, if we will seize it, to turn the tide against fear and hate. That’s what I’m going to talk about today.
If I were a Muslim living in America right now, I would feel very nervous.
Rarely does a day go by when we don’t read or hear of some new anti-Muslim incident: Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly blaming all Muslims for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; protest over a proposed mosque in Tennessee; Florida preacher Terry Jones threatening to publicly burn Qur’ans last Sept. 11; outrage over the proposed Park51 community center in New York because it contains a Muslim prayer space.
It might seem that, nine years after those Sept. 11 attacks, we in America would have resolved our anger over it, and the fears that sparked that anger. I remember my own anxieties after hearing the news of the plane crashes, wondering if we would ever feel safe and secure in this country again. Nine years later, I’m still wondering that. But terrorists aren’t the ones who scare me, not anymore. The enemy, in my mind, has changed, and is far more dangerous.
“Fear became a familiar flavor, mixed daily into our bread,” I wrote in my first novel, “The Jewel of Medina.” That’s how A’isha, the prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife and the book’s protagonist, describes waiting for an army of ten thousand to invade Medina in the famous Battle of the Trench. But it also describes our mood in the U.S. today.
The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave has become, after 9/11, the land of the fearful and the home of the hater. Non-Muslims eye their Muslim neighbors with suspicion after being told that lethally trained terrorists now walk among us. We hear right-wing politicians and commentators warning us constantly about the “spread” of Islam in the U.S., as if it were a contagious disease. Alarmists tell us that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim, and that Muslims want to take over the world.
Election season, as usual, has pushed the hysteria to a fevered pitch. In that hotbed of Muslim extremism, Oklahoma, voters will soon consider a proposed constitutional amendment forbidding courts from using sharia law as a basis for rulings. According to a news article, proponents say the amendment “will prevent the takeover of Oklahoma by Islamic extremists who want to undo America from the inside out.” And at a recent Tea Party convention in Tennessee, blogger Pamela Geller proclaimed, “We are at a point of having to take a stand against all Muslims. There is no good or bad Muslim. There is [sic] only Muslims and they are embedded in our government, military and other offices…. What more must we wait for to take back this country of ours?”
I’ve been wondering the same thing. How do those of us who cherish the notion of America as a “melting pot” of cultures, races, and religions take back our country from the haters? It won’t be easy, because there’s money to be made from war in the Middle East, and American citizens won’t support those wars unless we fear and hate the enemy.
I’m not profiting from the so-called “War on Terror.” I’ll bet you aren’t, either. Nor are the people in the Middle East we supposedly are there to help, more than 66,000 civilians killed in Iraq alone in the seven years we’ve been there. Nor is our country’s economy, which is being bled to death as the U.S. spends as much as $12 billion per month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Who profits? Big Oil. Halliburton. Blackwater. International banks. Politicians. And the tragedy is, we in America have let ourselves be duped by the fearmongering and lured into a war that never ends because, in the War on Terror, there is no tangible enemy to be defeated. Terror is an idea, and ideas can’t be eradicated.
In fact, a new report confirms what so many of us have long suspected: U.S. occupation abroad has actually increased terrorism.
In the scholarly journal “Foreign Policy,” Robert Pape writes,
More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically – from about 300 from 1980 to 2003 (avg 13 per yr), to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009 (360 per yr). Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.
In other words, our country’s actions are strengthening the enemy we are supposedly trying to defeat. Yet support for these wars continues, and Islamophobia is the fuel that fires that support.
The warmongers will keep profiting, and the rest of us will keep losing — economically, emotionally, and morally — until we stop fighting one another and recognize whom our true enemies are. Our true enemies aren’t in the Middle East or in a Florida church or in a mosque in New York. They’re not terrorists or even big corporations or the government. Our true enemies are the fear and hatred that lurk in our own hearts. And there is only one way to defeat hatred and fear. Only one way.
I want to tell you a story now, about my own struggles with fear in the weeks and months after worldwide controversy erupted over “The Jewel of Medina.” They were by far the darkest days and nights I have ever experienced, but in true “trial by fire” fashion, they transformed me. In the face of riots, death threats and an incredible amount of hatred, I somehow found within myself the antidote to fear.
“The Jewel of Medina” tells the story of A’isha bint Abi Bakr, whom Islamic traditions say married Muhammad when she was nine years old. The Prophet was fifty-four, and the best friend of A’isha’s father, Abu Bakr. Her tender age is often cited to justify Islamophobia, but I have found that not even Muslim scholars agree as to how old she really was. Some say she would have been at least fifteen, or even nineteen when she married him. I kept her age as nine at marriage, but delayed the consummation until she was fourteen. The Prophet Muhammad I found in my studies was a strong supporter of women and women’s equality, and would not have forced himself on a nine-year-old girl.
“The Jewel of Medina” is partly a love story, partly a feminist tale with a strong, heroic female protagonist, and partly a tale of the founding of Islam. The three famous battles — at Badr, Uhud, and the Battle of the Trench in Medina — are depicted, as well as the joys and difficulties of life in the Prophet’s always-growing harem. All the characters, including A’isha and the Prophet Muhammad, are depicted as human beings with human weaknesses and strengths, flaws and perfections.
“The Sword of Medina” takes place after Muhammad’s death, when A’isha acted as adviser to three of the caliphs who governed the Islamic umma after Muhammad. It describes what I imagine to be the growing tension between A’isha and Muhammad’s cousin Ali that led to the Battle of the Camel, as well as the tensions in the umma over the expansion of Islam. This book has two protagonists, telling the story partly from A’isha’s point of view and partly from Ali’s, and it culminates in the Battle of the Camel, the first Islamic civil war, in which A’isha rode into battle against Ali on the back of a camel.
I wrote “The Jewel of Medina” over a period of five years, reading everything I could find in English — some thirty books in all, including the Quran — and studying Islamic history and Arabic at the University of Montana. In 2007, my agent, Natasha Kern, sold world publishing rights to Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. The editors and other staff there loved the tale, and were lining up an eight-city book tour for me and the Book of the Month Club had scheduled “The Jewel of Medina” as a featured title.
In May 2008, three months before “The Jewel of Medina” was scheduled for publication, Random House got a call from a Middle Eastern Studies professor named Denise Spellberg, who had read an advance copy of “The Jewel of Medina.” Prof. Spellberg told Random House that my book was “more dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.” If Ballantine proceeded with publication, she warned, Random House would surely be attacked my Muslim terrorists, and there would be riots around the world. Ballantine executives decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication of my books. Convinced that the Western world needed these novels now, I terminated my contract with them.
A Muslim-American journalist, Asra Nomani, reported this disturbing event in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Nomani, who had read “The Jewel of Medina,” was amused by Prof. Spellberg’s claims that it was “soft-core pornography” — “The Jewel of Medina” doesn’t have a single sex scene — but the rest of the Muslim world was not amused. Soon angry Muslims were calling me a kaafira, which is an insulting term used to describe non-Muslims; a blasphemer, and a prostitute who deserved beheading or stoning. Remember: the book had not yet been published.
Anjem Choudary, a radical Muslim living in the UK, told CNN that I might deserve the death penalty; calls for my execution sprang up all over the internet. In Bangladesh, a crowd of men screamed and pumped their fists in the air in protest against my unpublished book while soldiers stood nearby in riot gear. In Serbia, an Islamic leader who apparently had not read “JOM” said it contained “brutal scenes of pornography” and demanded that my publisher withdraw all copies from bookstores and turn them over to him to burn — or else. In London, three Muslim extremists set fire to my British publisher’s home office in the middle of the night, causing him to cancel his plans to publish the novel and its sequel.
Once “The Jewel of Medina” was published, Islamophobes reacted just as angrily, calling me a wack job, denouncing my book as “trash,” and accusing me of creating the controversy in order to sell more books. And their anti-Muslim rhetoric increased, to my great dismay, blaming Muslims for Ballentine Books’s decision to cancel publication even though neither they nor their parent company, Random House, had received any threats.
I gave interviews to media around the world, day and night. Invariably, I would always be asked about fear. Aren’t you afraid you’ll be killed? Not wanting to contribute to the Islamophobic dialogue, I always said ‘no,’ even as I trembled in my top-floor apartment with the blinds closed, afraid of being shot; as I walked the alleys instead of the streets in downtown Spokane, afraid of being seen; as I awoke night after night, my heart pounding, after yet another dream of being chased by terrorists. After several days of this stress I ran away, fleeing to a friend’s house on a Montana mountaintop. I refused to give interviews. I shut down my blog. I wanted only peace.
But peace wouldn’t come, not yet.
When a journalist tracked me down with the news that Muslims were protesting my book in Serbia two days after its publication there, I was sickened. Prof. Spellberg’s predictions were coming true, I thought. I wondered: “What have I done?” My rational self reminded me that I am not responsible for other’s actions or reactions, but nevertheless, I felt paralyzed by despair.
A Serbian editor asked me to write a response to the protests for his newspaper. I hesitated: I didn’t want to deal with this any more. I just wanted it to stop.
I stood in the guest room of my friend’s house, crying. I looked out the window at the beautiful blue sky. I thought, “Help me!” And then, I felt warmth spread through me, and calm. I remembered, in that instant, what I am all about, why I wrote these books to begin with.
Love is why I wrote “The Jewel of Medina” and its sequel, “The Sword of Medina.” Not love for Islam, although hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric after 9/11 did send me to the library to learn more about the religion. But I wrote these books because I found A’isha’s story so inspiring, and because I wanted to share the surprising things I had learned about Islam with the rest of the world. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy leads to peace. Love for humanity, a desire to bring people together, to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, led me to write them.
“Love, peace, strength, and courage.” This, I decided should be my mantra from now on. My fear flew out the window, never to return. I sat down and wrote that article for the Serbian paper. “My intentions,” I wrote, “were to celebrate these great historical figures while dispelling misunderstandings about Islam.”
I wrote, “Novels can give the gift of empathy, helping us to understand those who are not like us by placing us inside their hearts and minds. I began my novel as a tribute to A’isha and to all the women who played crucial roles in the forming of the early Islamic community. As I read, and as I wrote, I developed a keen empathy for these women, and for Muhammad.”
From that place of perfect love, I wrote not with anger, fear, or hatred, but with love. The newspaper editor later told me that my column made a huge impact on its readers. Soon the Muslim community was calling for the publication of “The Jewel of Medina” in Serbia, and my publisher was able to return it to bookstores there. Today, I have met and corresponded with many Serbian readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, who say my books have given them a new understanding of Islam and a new role model of strength in A’isha.
“Perfect love,” the Bible says, “casts out fear.” In the struggle against Islamophobia — and against all forms of hate — I’ve found that perfect love is the perfect response. It’s the response that we all need to make together in order to wipe out the meanness being spread by the hatemongers and warmongers — including extremest Muslims such as Adam Gadahn, the al-Qaida spokesman who wants Muslims living in the United States to carry out terrorist attacks on our soil. This call fits right in with Osama bin Laden’s aim of weakening our country by dividing us, by turning us against one another. Remember that saying, “United we stand; divided, we fall”? We don’t have to fall for these divisive tactics, even if others do.
Last week, seven members of the fundamentalist Westboro Batptist Church in Kansas came to Spokane, Washington, where I live, to protest homosexuality. They waved signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” and “God Is Your Enemy.” As if God would hate any of His or Her children, when we humans love our kids no matter what they do. We might not love what they do, but we cannot help loving them. How much more perfect must be the love of God for humanity?
How did Spokane respond to this demonstration of hatred and intolerance? We created a “love train,” a moving counter-protest that followed the Westboro haters throughout the day to every protest site. As many as one thousand people participated in a spirit of love, drowning out the voices of hate.
If we are to conquer Islamophobia, we must do the same. We cannot silence the voices of hatred and fear in our country, for the right to free speech is crucial to democracy, but we can overwhelm them with the counter-message of love, empathy and tolerance.
The main difficulty for moderate Muslims — indeed, for all moderate voices — lies in being heard. Journalists have a saying: “Dog bites man” isn’t news. “Man bites dog” is news. The news is the unusual. That’s why a questionable character such as Terry Jones gets coverage when he announces that he’s going to burn Qur’ans — the quintessential Bonfire of the Vanities, drawing attention to himself, and helped along by media outlets just as desperate for attention.
In order to effect change, we lovers need attention, too. Dramatic gestures are a must. If we want to take our country back from the haters, we need to make a big, grand, glorious demonstration of love.
Next year comes the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. You can bet the haters will be out in full force, pointing fingers and spewing their venom against Muslims. The media will be right there to give them the attention they crave. But what about the rest of us? What can we do?
Here’s my idea: Let’s join together on Sept. 11, 2011, in a vast, dramatic love-fest, Muslim and non-Muslim, to express our sorrow over the tragedy of 9/11 and our joint opposition to terrorism. Think of the impact such an observance could have, and of the message that it would send not only thoughout America, but to the world — a message of unity, one that would strengthen us all against the divisive forces of hate.
The Qur’an says that we are all created from a single soul. What a beautiful idea. Isn’t it time we acted like it? Let’s stand together and show the haters that we are all patriots, that we all care about the United States of America, that we are all of us, regardless of our origins or our spiritual beliefs or the color of our skin, we are all Americans, and that it is our country, too.
Let’s join together, united, in a spirit of love — and take our country back.