Champions of free speech?
Writing in New Humanist, Sherry Jones says Serbs have embraced the Jewel of Medina because they know the value of free expression. But could the reasons be more profane? asks Simon Garnett
This is a response to "Our own worst enemy" by Sherry Jones, from the November/December 2009 issue of New Humanist.
Sherry Jones writes that "in Serbia, where the memory of life under Slobodan Milošević is still strong, people spoke out en masse against attempts by Muslim officials to stop publication of my books [The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina]" and that a year later "both sit near the top of the Serbian bestseller list".
Jones seems to be suggesting that the experience of Milošević has given Serbs a keener appreciation of free speech than publics in the UK and US, who demonstrated no such civil courage when publishers backed down from publishing Jones' book after threats and actual occurrences of violence. In Serbia, Jones writes, "people live in confidence that their right to free speech is stronger than ever," asking ominously: "Can we in the US and the UK say the same?"
Doubts aside about the reliability of an author who measures the state of free speech in a country with the position of her own novel on its bestseller lists, these statements are misleading in that they depoliticise a) the background of the attempt to have the book banned and b) the reality of free speech under Milošević.
While Jones' novel was indeed withdrawn from the Serbian market in August 2008 following protests from Muslim officials, and returned to the shelves a month later, the reasons were far more profane than Jones would have us think. The protests were led by Muamer Zukorlić, head of the Islamic Community in Serbia, who since 2007 has been losing a political struggle with a rival Muslim political fraction for control of the Sandzak region. Zukorlić's political ambitions and his close links to the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Cerić, has cost him support in the context of lingering ethnic-national disputes with Bosnia. By all accounts, this piece of symbolic politics was one of several spectacular attempts by Zukorlić to gain backing from the international Muslim community. Serbs have plenty of reasons to want to derail these, which have less to do with their enthusiasm for free speech than Jones imagines.
Jones' misunderstanding of censorship under Milošević is more telling still. The Milošević regime departed from the previous Cold War model precisely in that it was possible to openly criticize Milošević. The pro-Milošević media's polarization of Serbian society into patriots and traitors was taken as gospel by the majority, and for that reason the regime was indifferent to the critical journalism published daily in the independent media.
Just as damaging to the democratic opposition was its own tendency, when explaining its problems to Western media, to speak in a language that the West could understand, one that conserved Cold War stereotypes in terms such as "exile", "persecution" -- and "censorship". This language was felt by a large number of unaffiliated Serbs to be anachronistic and pathetic; combined with the fact that anti-Serb propaganda was all over the Western media at the time, it more or less entirely discredited the democratic movement within Serbia. It is interesting to speculate whether these same stereotypes are being transposed onto what Jones and others perceive as the new battle-lines of free speech, and how doing so might similarly alienate otherwise non-political Muslims.
While the memory of Milošević may indeed be strong in the minds of Serbians, the fact is that a thorough and mainstream reappraisal of Serbia's responsibility for war crimes, the largest single victim group of which was Muslim, has yet to take place. Were that book to be written, it would be unlikely to reach the top of the bestseller list. Instead, there exists a derivate and commercialised media agenda in which scandal sells. Just as Zukorlić imitated the language of injured religious sensibilities ubiquitous since the Danish cartoon controversy, so the Serbian public imitated the western secular backlash. If the former was an exercise in fundamentalist PR, the latter was an exercise in ersatz politics in a country yet to address the real issues of its recent past.
Sherry Jones responds:
"I wonder if Mr. Garnett has travelled to Serbia, as I did last September, and talked to people there about The Jewel of Medina, or with the journalists who covered the controversy, or with Aleksandar Jasic, my Serbian publisher? The situation regarding the withdrawal, then resumption of publication of my books in Serbia is much more complex than Mr Garnett indicates in this column.
He is entitled to his opinion, of course. If he is correct and the Serbian people need to come to terms with past wrongs toward Muslims, I am doubly encouraged by the strong sales of my books in that country. I have always envisioned The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina as bridge-builders between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures."