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Prophet Muhammad Novel Flies Off Belgrade Bookshelves

The controversial novel "The Jewel of Medina" by U.S. author Sherry Jones is proving a best-seller in Belgrade, after it was briefly withdrawn following complaints from parts of Serbia's Islamic community.

An initial print run of some 10,000 copies is reported to have sold out in the week since the novel reappeared in Belgrade bookstores.

The book is a fictionalized account of the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his youngest wife, Aisha.

Following an initial withdrawal of copies from Belgrade bookstores and a public debate lasting several weeks, the decision to bring the novel back into circulation in Serbia was made by Aleksandar Jasic, owner of the publishing house Beobook, who describes the decision as being in the best interests of the Islamic Community in Serbia, the readers, and the publisher himself.

"There are several reasons why we decided to bring the book back into circulation," Jasic explains. "Above all, some local tabloids published excerpts from the book, using them in a very sensationalist manner, and one serious paper published fragments of sentences taken out of context. Sadly, these publications have a circulation that no book in Serbia can achieve. This kind of manipulation can cause confusion and give the wrong impression about the book's contents."

Publisher Problems

The Serbian translation marks "The Jewel of Medina's" world debut, after publisher Random House cancelled the novel's release in the United States last month citing fears it could incite violence by radical Muslims. It has since been bought by another publisher for a planned U.S. launch next month.

The "Jewel of Medina" recently appeared in Belgrade bookstores but was withdrawn from sale last month following protests from the Islamic Community in Serbia, one of Serbia's two main Muslim organizations, headquartered in Novi Pazar. The book was deemed to be a pornographic account of the life of Aisha, and as such an insult to any adherent of the Islamic faith.

Jasic, however, says he does not believe the book is an insult to Muslims.

"Had we thought of the book in that way we never would have published it," he says. "From the very start our position has been -- and remains -- that in our opinion it is not an insult to Muslims, nor was this the author's intention."

The Serbian government issued an official statement expressing regret over the book's publication, which, following a decision it said was motivated solely by commercial gain, led to hurt feelings in the Islamic community. The government added, however, that it cannot interfere in the affairs of an independent publisher, on account of the guarantees of free speech and expression enshrined in the Serbian Constitution, a prerequisite for any democratic society.

"The publication of this book, considering the complex and sensitive political situation in the world, is not in the interests of the struggle for preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia," the government said.

"This is a decision of the publisher," Culture Minister Nebojsa Bradic said. "We as the Ministry of Culture have to adhere to the standards we adopt. In this country there is no censorship, and the editorial policy of individual publishing houses is up to the publishers themselves. Their decision to put the book into circulation will not be reviewed by the Ministry of Culture."

Referring to the government’s statement of regret, Bradic commented, "There are a number of issues at stake here, including censorship, which does not exist in this country, as well as the publisher's rights, and the potential political implications that were the cause of all the uproar."

Orientalist Rade Bozovic agrees that this was "touchy terrain," saying that we live in a society with adherents of several faiths, where wars have been fought in the past over religion.

"I am against any kind of ban, but I am also in favor of respecting other people's feelings, especially the feelings of minorities," Bozovic says. "Over the past several decades minority groups have received a lot of attention everywhere in the world, and Serbia must follow suit. I personally believe that Muslims who find their feelings hurt by this book should not pay it any mind but should, as they have until now, lead an appropriate social and religious life in the society they share with adherents of other faiths, and participate in the building of a democratic society."

In any event, the book is now definitively before the reading public in Serbia, while the scandal, as usual, has only increased interest in it.

"We already had the book and sold out of copies. Today there were about 15 customers, mostly women, who asked for the book," says a saleswoman in one Belgrade bookstore, who adds that she didn't believe "The Jewel of Medina" would cause any major trouble.

"I am absolutely not afraid, I do not think there will be any problems, we live in a secular society and books shouldn’t be banned -- junk should be banned."